My younger brother mentioned to me recently that broken bones, burns, bruises, scalds, and cuts and stitches were all part of growing up when we were young. Forgetting to add that he was often the cause of some of mine. The reason I part my hair on the “wrong side” is that he hit me on the crown of my head with a yard brush when I was 7 or 8, resulting in several stitches. He was also the reason for two of the three major fights in my life where I was badly bruised and cut.
We grew up on the council estates of Leicester. In the late 1950s we moved to St Mathews, a new estate that was being built on a major slum clearance area. This was our playground. It was where I suffered many injuries that were part of my growing up.
The first thing to go was my front teeth. I lost these in a fight in the school room. I hit a desk as I fell and left my new second teeth behind. It took a week to see the school dentist. Too late for any replacement, except dentures. I have worn false teeth since that day. They are second nature to me now but they were a source of great embarrassment in my teenage years.
I broke my arm next. There was an old recreation ground on the estate. In those days the play apparatus appeared to be designed to injure young bodies on the tarmac floor. One day, I was competing with a friend to see who could go highest on the swings. The aim was to get at least level with the bar or even higher. This was done standing up. I reached this height and lost my grip, falling backwards off the swing and onto the tarmac below. I took the full weight of the fall on my left arm and it was badly broken. I wore the plaster with pride for several months.
The demolition sites provided most of our adventures. One game of dare involved going along a street of abandoned houses and punching out the window panes. If you did this quickly you were usually safe. If you mistimed your punch you could end up with a nasty cut. Suffice it to say more trips to the hospital followed and the game was banned.
On one occasion I was playing on the sites and impaled my calf on a 6 inch rusty nail. I was getting use to the stitches but this was the first time I had a tetanus jab in my bum. One morning walking to school, which I always did unaccompanied, I crossed a working site. It was early morning and still misty. I was late and began to run. I swerved to avoid a fire that was in my path. Unfortunately in doing so I trod on a stick which had one end in the fire. The stick shot up and hit me an inch above my right eye. It was covered in hot tar. I don’t know what happened next but I finished up once again at A&E. I still have the scar today. A little lower and I could have lost my eye.
Probably the nearest I came to serious injury was an incident on a piece of wasteland in front of a pub called The Talbot. It was a Saturday dinner time and I was going home in the rain. I crossed the site which resembled a First World War battlefield. Half way across I began to sink into the mud. I sank to my waist. I called for help but no one heard. A man came out of the pub and saw me waving. He recognised me and returned to the pub to call my Dad. He rushed out and ran across the site. Unfortunately he was too heavy for the swamp like conditions and began to get bogged down. A lighter man followed him, reached me at speed, and with an amazing show of strength pulled me from the quagmire. The ambulance was called and I was declared fit except for a little shock and exposure. We learned later that there were cellars below the site which had not been filled in properly during demolition. If I had sunk any further I could have fallen through. I appeared on the front page of the Leicester Mercury on the following Monday. The site is now a park in the middle of the estate. Very few people know that underneath the park lies buried a pair of wellingtons which I lost as I was pulled out.
Some might say that Mam and Dad were wrong to allow us to roam free in our childhood. I disagree. Life is full of risks and I fear that we are now in danger of over protecting our children. From an early age, we played on the streets. As we grew older, we travelled further onto the local parks and into the countryside. I feel sad now when I enter a local park and see it empty even at the height of summer. We would have been playing on them from dawn until dusk. We knew there were dangers but we dealt with them. My brother calls it community knowledge. I call it being streetwise. Getting injured was a rite of passage. Being independent prepared us for the greater risks in life that came with growing up. We need to be set free to make mistakes and learn. We need to get dirty and hurt ourselves to build up resistance. As my Mam always said when I returned home with another bruise, cut or burn. “It’s only a scratch, just put some butter on it”