true story of a true boat (1960s)

John D

The author: John Dennis

Although this refers to the 1960s it was written in the 1990s

This reproduces a personal (and beautifully written) account by a miner of a series of incidents in his pit village (Kiveton Park) in Yorkshire, UK, which gives some idea of the atmosphere of the mining areas during the mid- 1960s. It is not the kind of history one is likely to see from those trained to write “History” with a capital “H”. It is lived personal history, seamlessly mixing general history with subjective history. Life-enhancing, often very funny.

I put his here as a separate and more public text because on my 65th birthday, having re-read it,  I think this is great. Despite hearing the sound of the author of it rolling over  in his grave mumbling “fucking middle class wanker” (worse – “fucking middle class wanker who hates fucking middle class wankers”, only the latter bit of which is true nowadays…and which anyway was always far more complex than the easy stereotyping), I still greatly respect what was life-loving in him and in his revolt. And this is an exhilirating example of it.

He died just over 13 years ago- having bit by bloody bit committed slow suicide in the wake of the disaster of the defeat of the miners and the closing of the pit communities and their community of struggle. Although, like most people ( including some of the best some of the time ) he was a mad bastard at times – I feel good to have known him. 

This is taken from here


The Story of a Boat

(no title in the original)

by John Dennis


John D

   This story begins in the early sixties. I would be just sixteen years old, just entering the world of work. Life appeared good and for me – everything seemed possible (people of my age are obliged to say that sort of thing about the sixties). Anyway, Europe at that time had a massive mining industry in which millions of people were employed and on which millions depended. We happily polluted the skies with our smoke and denuded the land and forests with our acid rain. The Beatles were beatling and The Stones were beginning to roll. Good whisky was about two pounds a bottle, beer was around seven pence a pint. We teenagers were being trained to provide the hands and minds that would begin to embrace the white heat of technology. Most of us in the mining communities seemed to have a place in the present and great expectations of the future. Ignorance was bliss and we were blissfully ignorant.

   For such kids as myself who did not enjoy an above average intelligence or parents with middle-class aspirations we generally gleaned some sort of education from the secondary modern schools. Thus after spending five years learning the rudiments of social interaction, petty crime and sexual experimentation it would be time to leave and be taken into one of the three great soaks of the young white male in Yorkshire. For the majority it would be the mines, the steel industry or the armed forces. If you consider my family history and the proximity of the coal mines – six within a three mile radius and one on the doorstep – it’s not too surprising that I should take what seemed to be the easy option and sign up with the NCB (National Coal Board).

  After the primary euphoria of acceptance and a vigorous sixteen week training period a great disappointment befell me and the likes of me. Because we were above six foot in height and weighed less than eleven stones it was deemed that we were physically unsuited to become face workers. It would seem that the ideal face worker should be five feet nine high and five foot six across, social engineering maybe? The shame, all our clan had been underground workers, my father, his father, his father, cousins, brothers, maybe the odd sister, all of them members of that industrial elite, the money, the hours, the social kudos. I was willing to be killed, crippled or rendered lungless, if only I could have carried on the family tradition. Alas, no, so a compromise was made. I would be apprenticed into one or more of the mining trades. In time I would be a blacksmith, welder, farrier, learn the mysteries of rope making and in my spare time make tea for the craftsmen, clean the workshop and not complain if I should be beaten up or sexually abused.

   So it went busily on until one dull as dishwater morning in 1964 the foreman came to us and gave us our tasks for the day. He began with the opening, “John, Mick, Alan, you’ve shown such promise in your metalworking skills that the engineer has seen fit to give you lads the chance of a lifetime.” We heard the man’s blatherings with some suspicion but not with optimism, he was Alan’s father after all. What sort of a chance of a lifetime? Some task to test our newly founded skills? Some project in the mine to stretch our physical and mental capacities? Imagine our disbelief when the lickspittle gaffer’s running dog said, “Lads, you’re going to help build the Chief Engineer a sailing boat”.

   I think it may be wise at this juncture to explain some of the social relationships between the miners, the village and the employers that existed during the 1960s and 70s. We seemed to be in a period of some consolidation between the barbarities of the coal owners and the savagery about to be unleashed during the Thatcher years. After nationalisation, conditions in the mines improved, poachers turned to game keepers, the NUM incorporated its powers. Investment in mining was massive, there seemed to be a tacit agreement that, “if it was good for the miners it was good for Britain”, and no doubt the miners thought vice versa. In villages such as Kiveton Park with a population of around three thousand, one thousand worked at the mine and seven hundred in mining support industries. The old patrimony seemed to carry on seamlessly. The Dennis family like many more had fled the famine in Ireland during the middle of the 19th century. They had washed up on the shores of this uncompromising land and straightaway signed up to work in one of the most barbaric industries in Europe. Great grandfather John had been a shaft sinker at Kiveton Park, his son John a driver of tunnels. I would be the third and the last John Dennis to work at Kiveton Park Colliery. We lived in low rent houses owned by the NCB. The schools, medical facilities owed their beginnings to the miners, even the churches and chapels were built or renovated by the good will and labour of the workers. We would nowadays be described as a close community.

   The hierarchy at the mine itself was only slightly revised from the days of the coal owners. The Colliery Manager could be likened to the captain of a nineteenth century sailing ship, his powers awesome, his responsibilities equally so, described by act of parliament he answered for every life, human or animal, every nut, bolt and cobble of coal, the mine and its environs and to a great degree, the social and economic life of the village in his grasping paws. Directly below him on the ladder to fame and fortune, stood peering up his trouser leg, my boss. The enginewright, to give his job description, would be engineer in charge of the mine. In those days enginewrights had so much room in which to line their pockets and abuse their many powers, but one source of unending conflict between the manager (in charge of overall production) and engineer (in charge of the mode of production) was that machines would be smashed, worn out or sabotaged by the elements in a growing bolshy workforce. From the workers point of view the problem was really simple. It took x number of pounds to buy and maintain a mining machine. It took x number of pounds and two years of valuable time to train a pit pony. The workers earn and maintain their own keep. He or she is not a capital investment. For us the answer was simple. We not only stole the bosses’ materials, we stole their time. To the bosses the machine and the pony were of more value than the workers. Also the government had decreed that machines and animals were tax deductable. In those days we knew exactly where we stood.

    We all knew the pedigree of our enginewright and we all knew of his predicament in the year of the boat. In 1964 he would have been around sixty four years old, tired and embittered and certainly fraying at the edges. He had married young to the daughter of a second generation colliery manager. He was at that time a lowly machinist, she a lass of great appetite and social conscience. Naturally his ambitions to be an enginewright were fulfilled. Marrying the boss’s daughter assured that. In fact in his younger days he was considered a rising star and it would only be a short time before he attained a place on the board of directors, owning several mines in that area. Then for him tragedy. His wheel of fortune and fame developed a flat tyre. It was 1947 and those red-in-tooth and claw socialists went and nationalised the mines. No more would marrying the boss’s daughter assure him of a safe passage on his slimy journey from rags to riches. In truth, marrying the boss’s daughter scuppered any chance of furthering his career at all. The reason being the reputation of the father-in-law in question. This creature made Josef Stalin look positively avuncular. During his time as Squire of Waleswood and manager of Brookhouse Pit he took his pleasure by sacking any worker who displeased him then evicting them from their homes. Thuggery, buggery and intimidation were all watchwords. But to cap it all he and the mining company owned all the shops and public houses in the village, so by selling them cheap strong beer and relatively expensive food he entrapped the miners and their families into drunkenness, poverty and debt. Even by his contemporaries he was considered an ineffable bastard which must put him in the same league as                           (fill this space if you know of anyone that wicked who has not been exposed in the full glare of left-wing historians or the mass media).

    Thankfully, “the mills of justice may grind slowly but they grind exceedingly small” and the lousy old sod got his punishment in the true and tried English tradition. Firstly, he was given the options of resign or carry on working, sharpening pencils in some obscure office in deepest Doncaster. If he resigned he would be forced to take approximately ten years wages in lieu of lost earnings. His shares in Waleswood Mining Company would be bought from him at premium prices and his pensions would be paid in cash on the day of his resignation. He died a mere 87 years old in his swimming pool on the island of Antigua, some say from a surfeit of rum and rent boys. His days of shame and exile must have given great satisfaction to those many poor and damaged souls he inflicted such gross inhumanities upon. But worse still our poor enginewright was shuffled to the sidelines, there to waste his remaining years, a frustrated Brunel. His wife, now of independent means, would desert him at least twice in the year to do good works in the East End of London or to sojourn with struggling young artists in the steamier regions of Italy. His children despised him, his colleagues pitied him and we made his life as unhappy as he tried to make ours’.

   At times of great despondency he would unburden his woes around the pubs and clubs of the villages. It is said that during one of these two-bottle unburdenings he came upon the idea of building a boat that upon his retirement would take him through the canals and rivers of England and thus escape the miseries of mining and the contempt of his family. The spirits guide us in mysterious ways.

     Between the Pit Manager and the enginewright there was an old festering conflict. As an ex-lover of the engineman’s wife the manager knew well his propensity for drink and theft, but the enginewright knew of the manager’s weakness for cooking the figures (which enhanced his bonus) and the fact that bedding another man’s wife would not enhance the happiness of that pillar of the local Methodist community, the manager’s wife.

    The dimensions of that boat would be thus: in length 18 feet, in width 6 feet, the mast 16 feet tall, the hull to be made of supermarine plywood, the fitments and fittings to be hand crafted, the engine to be a two litre Coventry Climax converted from the pit potable fire pump, hydraulics and pipe work gratis from Doughty, the labour and time gratis the NCB. It was to be built in the carpenter’s workshop but hidden from prying eyes by a canvas partition.

    My tasks from the beginning would be to hand finish all the many copper and brass fitments which would be delivered from the foundry in a rough condition. It’s strange how fortune seems to favour the favoured. In this case it manifested itself in the guise of the foreman carpenter, his war service had been spent in the construction of torpedo boats for the British and US Navy. After five years of bending plywood in some Norfolk backwater he could nearly do it blindfold. The sealords work in mysterious ways.

    At the start of the project we didn’t mind the painstaking and repetitive nature of the work, after all there was a certain thrill in taking part in such a scandal. Then there was the fact that much of the work was done outside production time. This meant working Saturday and Sunday, time and a half and double time respectively. Add to this the fact that if we felt like a lazy hour in the workshop we would take a small work piece, place it in the vice and pretend to file or polish it. The foreman would peer over our shoulders, put his finger at the side of his nose, nod sagely, then slope off to pester some other unfortunate.

   But alas the novelty began to subside and maybe the work began to suffer as a consequence, or maybe we were beginning to react to the attitude of the enginewright. He was becoming obsessed with the time the work was taking. He would stride down the workshop, arms waving, spittle splashing, eyes popping. “Two hours to polish a bollard, that’s bollocks Dennis!” This hurt. All craftsmen know the adage, “More haste less speed”. It’s imprinted in the back of our minds like a mantra, so we naturally resent such talk.

    After work we’d sit in the pub and talk of the really important things such as money, sex, money, Alan’s latest wet dream (they were becoming really bizarre). The things that lad got up to in his sleep would keep a Jungian trick cyclist in work for a lifetime. On the afternoon of the gaffer’s outburst about my bollocking bollards, he related his dream of the night before. It seems he was page boy to the mother of the queen. It involved him guiding the penis of the queen mother’s horse into her vagina (which was tastefully kept from view by a tartan blanket) while he was being masturbated by the young Princess Anne, naked but for a golden miner’s helmet. Bloody hell! Then we’d talk about money again, the advantages of the condom as a device for halting premature ejaculation, the quality of the beer and then finally the boat and how everybody but the bloody enginewright was becoming so disenchanted with the whole bloody project.

   Things took an extra turn for the worse a few days later when the enginewright brought his new assistant to the workshops on what could be described as a guided tour, during which he mapped out the pitfalls, snares and traps his prodigy would encounter in his daily dealings with the proletariat. In fact on passing our workbench at which I was putting the final shine onto another (or was it the same?) bollard the old snake said to his new gofer, “Watch that bastard Dennis. He’s idle, shifty and he’d steal the coat off the back of a leper.” I was most offended, shifty indeed! I’d never been called shifty before. This new guy was of old mining stock but had just graduated from Sheffield University. He had the wit to understand the boat situation but from the onset he had made it clear that he would collect feathers in his cap if by hassling, hustling and bustling he could expedite the completion of the “Marie Celeste” (as the boat had now become known to we three apprentices). To these ends this man would be found prowling the workshops at 6.30 in the morning. Management in its senior forms would never be seen before 9a.m. if the good running of any enterprise is to be assured, workers in all walks of life understand this basic tenant. This guy would appear before we’d finished wiping the sleep from our eyes and say in a loud voice, “Right men, let’s show the boss what we can do. Come on, let’s get cracking!” Indeed one morning he said to the foreman, “Get the bollard boys off the boat work and onto some fucking pit work. It’s a bleeding disgrace this workshop.” Imagine the foreman’s shame at being usurped by an overweaning toe rag the likes of an assistant engineer. Also the added shame of having his son described as a “bollard boy”, this epithet was to remain with Alan for many years. In fact to this day when father and son are seen together the cry will go up: “Here comes Blacksmith Bill and his bollard boy,” a remaining stain on a proud working family.

     The situation finally came to a head one morning when the assistant discovered the foreman blacksmith trying to fold a piece of canvas into the boot of his car. The assistant with his usual calm and considered approach said, “Right! What do you think you’re doing stealing the Gaffer’s sailcloth?” The blacksmith replied, “This is not a sail, this is a hammock for my back garden, so fuck off”. The assistant stamped his feet, turned pink, turned purple, whipped off his helmet and kicked it across the car park shouting, “Right, that’s it. You’re sacked, fired, I’m going to have you prosecuted.” You may have guessed that by this time everybody called him Mr. Right. But let’s not digress. The assistant went to the manager, the foreman of the Union and the rest of us looked like going on strike.

     In 1964, my father and the pit manager would be 53-54 years old. They’d both left school at 14 years of age and had started in the pits as pony drivers, their job to lead the pit ponies pulling the tubs on their journey from the coal face to the collecting points. To the pit bottom it was an arduous and dangerous journey. In those days it was a rigourous training for even harder things to come. Their careers had parallels in time and in some ways circumstances. When I look at photographs of my father as a teenager at 14-15 years old I can see a child but eyes are already ageing beyond his time. His body is that of the small Dennis’s – around 5′ 6″(full grown 5′ 9″), big shoulders, thin waist, long arms and those silly tendril-like fingers that we’d all inherit – except for his hands the perfect mining shape. Early in life George, through the influence of his beloved mother learned to and became a talented violin player. The manager at that same age found that most cherished of Yorkshire sports, cricket.

     During the 1926 strike father learned hard lessons about the lack of solidarity of the English workers when threatened by the middle classes. In the late twenties he joined the Communist Party. Our manager in the meantime through his ambitions to rise in mining and his contacts in the higher echelons of cricket became a deputy (underground foreman). Father led a local dance band, the manager led Worksop cricket team and was very active in the North Notts Tory party. They both married in the late 1930’s. The manager left the Tory Party in 1939 because of the appeasement of the Chamberlain government. Father left the Communist Party in 1941 when Stalin signed the non-aggression treaty with Hitler4. In 1964, father at that time was union secretary, enjoying all the benefits that the position accrued to him, one of which was having intelligence on all the dubious doings of his membership at the mine at that time. Mr. Right had hardly finished his tirade in the car park before father was on his way to the manager’s office with certain cards to lay on the table and a few kept in reserve up his sleeve. His main argument was really direct and to the point. If any action were taken against the foreman blacksmith he’d be on the phone to the area offices describing the scandal of an engineer who seemed to think he was Noah and his upstart assistant who didn’t understand the basic rules of one illegal item for the management meant one for the workers. The manager didn’t even alter his countenance, he just waved his pen in the air and said, “George, what do you expect from a young lad straight from college. Let’s talk about getting a little bit more effort out of these chaps down in the headings.” To father that meant the subject had been settled satisfactorily. Mr. Right was less than satisfied when he was called to the presence later that morning. The information came back to father via the manager’s personal secretary, who was allowed by the manager to hand down information to the workers when the occasion suited. The meat of the interview was as follows. “What do you mean stealing canvas? There’s enough canvas in the stores to fit out the fucking Spanish Armada. Mind your ways laddie or it’s the Scottish coalfields for you”.

    Young Mr. Right, a well chastened assistant, was very subdued for long into the future, but still given to uncontrollable helmet kicking when primed and fired by the expert wind-up artists.

    Let me explain my piece in the jigsaw. For example, as many as fifteen bollards would arrive at the mine from the foundry. The attachments look like the letter “I”. They are fixed firmly; thereby ropes can be safely tied off and sales and masts can be made secure. Each small brass object would arrive from the foundry in a rough condition. To make it smooth the sharp edges had to be taken off with a very coarse file. Then marks and gouges had to be taken out by a less coarse file until a smooth file could be used to take out those marks, then metal abrasive cloths and then a polish hard and a polish soft. But every time I looked at the boat I was charmed, it’s lines, the work, it was becoming pleasing to the eye and to my mind a pest. For my two friends it may have been worse. The fitting of the engine and the keel would be educational but just as exasperating.

   Later that day, showered, needlessly shaved and very thirsty we assembled ourselves at the bar of the Saxon Hotel. There we ordered our beers from one of the few Calvinist barmaids in the county of Yorkshire. She held we youngsters in the deepest contempt saying we were doomed to the fires of hell and damnation due to our drinking, gambling, fornications and foul-mouthed unruly behaviour, then promptly gave us the wrong change (always short) and scream for the landlord if we complained. This woman exercised my curiosity no end. She would wear low cut sweaters hardly hiding her upthrusting breasts, the shortest of mini-skirts, make-up by the kilo and then declaim religion in a manner which would have made Martin Luther King reach for his tape recorder.

    In those days we would drink our first two pints standing at the bar (why waste time and energy walking?), order the next round, then find a table away from the jukebox and set about the foul-mouthed repartee which would so inflame the senses of our beloved barmaid. We were thus engaged when in walked father, who with no more ado came up to our table and sat down. “Well lads, I’ve just come from a chat with the manager and Alan’s dad. I think the best solution is for you lads and everybody concerned to get your fingers out and get the bloody thing finished and off the premises as quickly as possible.”

    I couldn’t believe my ears. What was he saying? Rush a job which by my crude estimations would, if dragged out for another three months, earn the people involved at least four hundred pounds in overtime let alone hours fruitful pleasure baiting the bosses? No way daddio! I saw his eyes glint and his shoulder muscles hunch when Mick said, “Bollocks! Whose fucking side are you on? Are you up the manager’s arse or something? This is money for old rope and it’s going to last as long as we can spin it out.” Father turned to me smiling, then as quick as a cobra back to Mick and grabbed him by the throat pulling him over the table and whacking him on the side of the head with his open hand. Mick spun to the floor, mouth open, eyes ablaze and hand reaching for a bottle. Things looked on the verge of serious violence when a voice high on righteousness and indignation rang out, “George Dennis, have you no shame? Striking a boy just out of school, not old enough to vote, let alone see the ways of the Lord. Well, I think it’s time you and your Communist kind were hounded out of office and sent back to Russia. And as for you, young Michael, he could no more creep up a gaffer’s arse than an elephant’s, his bloody head is too big. Now get out the lot of you afore I call the police.”

    Father stormed out first and we trailed after. This boat business was getting out of hand. As we stood on the terrace of the pub watching father stride away, the words came hissing out of Mike, “if he ever tries anything like that again, I’ll fucking have the bastard.” Try as I may I couldn’t think of any reply that would support him without betraying father. Then Alan said, “Did you see her when she lent over the bar? Did you? Her titties just about fell out, they did. You could see the brown bits. You know the ear holes? Fucking hell, I hope I dream about her tonight. Talk about hard-on.” I looked at Mick, we both looked at Alan, shook our heads and headed towards the working men’s club. I didn’t want to see father just yet.

   I arrived home after a couple of subdued pints to find father and mother just getting over one of those rows, the subjects of which tend to rumble on for years between couples who have been married for nearly quarter of a century, in this case, booze, money and the union – mother hated the first, never had enough of the second and resented the third, father loved all three. For the next half hour mother berated the both of us with our shortcomings. These included my moral laxity in not defending father, his propensity for violence, Mike’s hypocrisy, him coming from a family that had scabbed during the 1926 general strike and the mortal folly of drinking in the afternoon. When a person like mother took the high moral ground it was wise to sit down, switch off and think of barmaids with big boobs, just hoping she’ll finish the tirade before the potato pie became too cold to eat (see Vol. 1 – “The Matriarchs in Mining Villages” for a different perspective of life when the bounds of their reason were overstepped).

   About mother. My mother’s father had been killed in a mining accident in 1928. Kiveton pit after the defeat of the miners in 1926 was not a good place to work. The miners at Kiveton had been some of the most militant in Yorkshire. Now the bosses had the whip hand and they cracked that whip with increasing brutality. Conditions and pay had degenerated to almost pre-1914 standards. Mother’s family hand the story down that the undertaker had to put stones in the coffin to give the illusion of at least a little weight, there being so little of grandad to bury. The manner of his death was a scandal even for those dreadful times. The man in charge of igniting the explosives (the shotfirer) had set six separate sticks of gelignite, these he would fire in succession. This would bring the wall of rock down in a controlled manner instead of firing the charges simultaneously which would lead to unforeseen and chaotic results. The bloody man miscounted, he fired only five, then ordered grandfather forward to remove the fallen rubble. The poor man was standing over No. 6 shot when it exploded, he took the full force of the blast and was never seen again. All that was remaining could easily have been put into a small shopping basket without filling it. Not even his boots were recovered. The shotfirer was demoted and fined a week’s wages, grandmother was given £100 and a pension of 4 shillings a week for life, but only if she would accept that her husband’s death was due to his own fault. She had five daughters and two sons. The boys, just out of school, went into the mines. The girls, all except one, went into “service”. (this was a euphemism used to describe young girls working for low wages in the houses of the middle classes). All her life mother venerated the memory of her father and would become misty-eyed and tearful at the mention of his name. She was twelve years old when he was killed; she has many stories of the hard life.

    Due to a surfeit of Sam Smith’s bitter, potato pie and a troubled mind I overslept next morning. When I arrived in the carpenter’s shop it was to find Alan staring into the fireplace. The blaze was huge and the heat intense. “What the fuck are you burning, Napalm? That’s ridiculous!” I was standing about twenty feet away and my overalls were beginning to steam. I could just hear Alan’s reply over the roaring of the flames. “It’s that cotton waste you used yesterday to soak up that spilled varnish and paraffin. I threw it on the embers, it warmed up, smoked a bit, then WHOOSH! Fucking great, hey?” “Fucking great? Fucking fantastic, that’s what!”

   It was one of those occasions on which two people have the same idea at the same time and no words need to be spoken, all that’s wanted is time and certain trigger words to channel the thought process along similar avenues. In our case the words were Revenge and Blame – how to achieve our revenge and not take the blame. The conflagration subsided as quickly as it had begun, but it was gratifying to note that the wrought irons in front of the fire place still glowed a dull red after the fire had settled to it’s usual level. Our plans had to be set aside for the time being when the foreman arrived to give us our jobs for the day. I was to apply the umpteenth coat of varnish, Alan was to assist in assembling the steering gear. The mechanic working on the boat that day was to be George Marsh. His nickname (but not to his face) was Bog Breath.

   That morning we ate our sandwiches and drank our tea and tried not to get too close to George’s halitosis, we would look at each other and smirk and use phrases which only the two of us would know the secret relevance. Finally old Bog Breath had suffered enough innuendo, turned towards us and shouted, “Are you two shagging each other?”

   This would not have mattered too much had he not sprayed us with half chewed lumps of cheese and onion sandwich, mixed and softened with his usual strong black coffee. We quickly straightened our faces, washed our cups and went back to varnishing and tinkering. After work we sat in The Saxon together playing cards and planning how we could utilise this gift of wonderful destruction without being sent to prison for the rest of our teenage years and beyond. We thought of making electric devices which could ignite the varnish, we thought of clockwork devices, we thought of elaborate fuses. Fantasies evolved and disappeared but with each plan the risk outweighed the gain or proved impractical for our limited skills. As we sat, subdued and thoughtful, becoming more frustrated by the minute, in strode father. “Hello lads, I’m looking for volunteers to carry our “Beloved Union” banner in the carnival on Saturday. You three are perfect. You’re young and fit and you’ll be given free drinks in the beer tent at the end of the march.”

   After the nastiness of the previous days Alan and Mick were none too keen to comply with father’s proposition, but like Paul’s vision on the road to Damascus it came to me – “THE CARNIVAL”. Every year the management, the church and the chapels put aside their rivalries and sponsored a carnival on the second Saturday in August. This coincided with the religious harvest festival and the return to work of the miners from their annual holidays. Also every year after this carnival day would follow carnival night, naturally. During the daylight hours of carnival most of the enjoyment was focused on the children, the fairground, the fancy dress parade, the games, fathers being pelted by soaking sponges, mothers hiding pieces of rock and broken glass in the sponges and all the things that make a carnival a carnival. But after twilight things would change. In the local church hall many of the famous rock bands of the sixties would raise the emotional temperature to boiling point. Freddy and The Dreamers would create the adolescent nightmare of unrequited love. The Seekers would be lost forever. In pubescent orgasms, as young girls threw their soaking underwear onto the stage, young men would seethe. Gene Vincent would slink onto the stage, clad in shiny black leather, and promise covertly with his index finger to stimulate places in the female anatomy that young Yorkshire miners had yet to discover. We seethed, being the rough-arsed rednecks that we were. Instead of burning down the church and church hall, stuffing Gene Vincent’s digit up his own arse and giving The Dreamers and The Searchers a nightmare to remember, we would turn inward and fight each other. The cops loved it. After we had finished kicking the shit out of each other, they would arrive and carry on kicking the shit out of us. What a wonderful decay.

   We made the molotov cocktail using a wide-neck milk bottle so that the petrol would splash even if the bottle didn’t break. Before the end of the shift on Friday I collected all the varnish-soaked wasted cloth and spread it at the side of the boat. All we needed was Saturday night and luck. The decision as to who should do the job was easy. I was the hardest drinker and the fastest runner and, shit, it was my idea anyway.

   During the carnival and on the march through the streets we met the bastards who had given us the hard times with the boat. The Enginewright and his assistant shouted to us as we carried the banner, “Nearest you three have been to work in months. Nice work lads. At least you can follow the band.” We smiled. We took part in the games that children of all ages enjoy – drinking, eating, hitting, throwing balls, laughing at others and being laughed at. After a while we forgot our secret agenda and became part of the carnival.

   The British are renowned throughout Europe for their inability to deal with alcohol and rightly so. Adults are regarded as children. When buying booze and drinking in public, the times would be strictly enforced. Between 11 ‘o’ clock in the morning and 3 ‘o’ clock in the afternoon you could buy a drink in a pub (then you must rest). Between 6’o’clock in the evening and 10.30 you could buy a drink in a pub (then you must rest). Thank you Mother State but no thanks. Treat people like children and they behave like children. So it was with us. By 2.30 in the afternoon the consumption of beer had become ferocious. The young girls of our milieu had become emboldened by Babycham and barley wine (a most potent brew devised by a witch and warlock in Norfolk), we young men rowdy and bilious on black puddings, pork pies and warm ale.

  The entertainment for the rest of the day was set. As we lounged in the sun, searching for dregs to drink or underwear in which to wander, we became restless at the futility of it all and made our ways home to wash and dress for the evening enchantment.

   The off-licence is a peculiar place. It can sell all manner of goods but could only sell booze at the times mentioned above. Thankfully, the owners of these places were, and still are, greedy, unscrupulous and totally understanding of the teenage predicament. Therefore, before going into a gig or concert we would fortify ourselves before entering the totally teetotal church hall or equally benign establishment. In those days, under such circumstances, I would drink two or three bottles of Guinness and buy half a bottle of rum to mix with the coke to be bought inside. Alan would buy brandy to give to the girls who had smuggled in Babycham (brandy and Babycham – another potent mixture from Norfolk), Mick would smuggle Bacardi in, drink two-thirds of the bottle, then re-fill it with water and pass it round with largesse (nobody ever suspected him) and so the night progressed.

   If I remember correctly the group that headed the bill that night was Wayne Fontana and The My Members, a bunch of fortunate 23 year olds posing as teenagers. Wayne Fontana looked old beyond his years even then, lucky bastard. As I watched I became him, as I picked up the pheromones my mind began to wander again – this was not the plan – WHAT PLAN?

  Glad to relate that as the night wore on I became drunker by the minute. The rest of the story was given to me the next day. It would seem that the three of us had agreed to separate and then meet up at the bridge on Hard Lane. We then met at least five people walking back to the next village (Harthill) and had drunken conversations. We then strolled through the pit yard, picked up our molotovs, lit them, threw them through the carpenter’s window and wandered as pissed as rats to the end of Pit Lane. By the time the fire alarm was raised we were sat across from the tobacconist’s wondering what the fuck all these people could be dashing about at. The next day after the admonishments of mother about drinking till early on a Sunday we met at The Saxon. The first pint is the most important after a night when you can’t remember how you arrived home or found your bed. After the first sips I asked Alan, “How did it go?” He answered, “Great! Don’t you just love the smell of Sunday dinners cooking?” I said, “Who’s got the blame?” He said, “Some bunch of drunken revellers from Harthill. Seems they threw half a bottle of whisky through the joiner’s shop window and it caused a flashback from that great fireplace that’s always smouldering in there. My comment according to Alan and Mick was, “Fucking waste of good whisky.”


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