A 40’s Night Out at Blackpool Tower & A Broken Arm at the Dodgems!

img_6815A couple of weeks ago, a conversation about our grandchildren’s class projects developed into an intergenerational reminiscence about Blackpool Tower.

The class had been given different geographical monuments to research: our grandson’s was Stonehenge and our grand-daughter’s was Blackpool Tower. Whilst we had no experience of the former, the memories of this seaside town and its iconic landmark flowed like uncorked vintage wine from its dusty bottle as my mum, husband and I stretched our minds back many decades, recalling incidents and accidents that had our daughter’s family laughing and shaking their heads while jotting down our slightly addled anecdotes and the somewhat rarer nuggets of useful information. (Sorry, that was rather a long sentence!)

You see, my family used to live near Blackpool and my husband’s family went there often for day trips, so to us it was just down the road. It was a Mecca for young people with its funfair, arcades, annual illuminations and of course the famous tower with its ballroom, aquarium, menagerie and circus. My brother also went to college there and I remember we all visited him in the depths of winter when I was very pregnant and spent most of the visit scouring the streets for a shop that sold the object of my craving, an Orange Maid ice lolly. No other kind would do, of course.

Some historical context

Inspired by the Eiffel Tower and opened in 1894, Blackpool Tower is 158m tall and reputed to be the 120th highest freestanding building in the world.

(Circus, left, Ballroom right. Images from the official Blackpool Tower site, link above).

The main attractions in the tower include its splendid circus ring (still in action today, but thankfully with no wild animals since 1990) and its magnificent opulent ballroom, designed by Victorian architect, Frank Matcham. This stately setting features in the BBC ‘Strictly Come Dancing’ programme when, halfway through each series, the show gets very excited with itself as it heads for the splendour of the sprung, woodblocked, 11msq ballroom. It’s a dancer’s dream and where the original ‘Come Dancing’ series of the 1970s was filmed. You can still attend daily tea dances there.

This wonderful ballroom has also witnessed less glamorous dancing as my mum testified, when she had us in stitches with her tales of going dancing at the tower on a Saturday after work with her friends.

Apparently, in the 1940s, a special train ran to Blackpool at about 5pm for ‘the couples’ and young people having a night out, dancing. She and her friends would catch the bus to the station, using the journey time to put in their metal curlers and do their make-up, then they would tie up their hair in a turban with a headscarf (like the factory workers in wartime). These curlers were kept in for the entire journey and when they arrived at the tower, they would head straight for the ladies cloakroom where the curlers were removed and they would primp and powder until glamorous enough to make an appearance on the dancefloor! She doesn’t remember what they did with their curlers while they danced. Any suggestions?

img_6814Mum remembers live dance-bands like Joe Loss and his Orchestra (I remember seeing them on tv and hearing them on the radio, a bit too old-fashioned for me even at that young age). In the interval, the now world-famous Wurlitzer organ would slowly ascend through the floor, with Reginald Dixon the renowned organist playing as it did so. He would play until the band was ready to resume. Reginald Dixon designed the tower’s second Wurlitzer and he played there for 40 years. You can still witness this phenomenon at the tea dances today.

Later, my mum and dad would go dancing together at the Tower Ballroom. She misses those days, they both loved ballroom dancing. The labels on the 78s we used to have were all marked as ‘foxtrot’ or ‘waltz’ and so on. In the late 1950’s I remember her teaching me to rock ‘n’ roll to Cliff Richard!!

When my husband reminisces, on the other hand, we steel ourselves for the latest in a long history of mishaps, usually involving lost teeth or broken bones, which more often than not occur when out with his older cousin and he should have known better. The grandsons in particular find these stories hilarious and get Grandad to repeat them to entertain their friends when he visits. My daughter and I wince at what they are absorbing by osmosis and storing away for their teen years when they will dredge them up in an effort to redirect admonition because ‘You laughed when Grandad did it!’

One of these stories involves a trip to Blackpool on the back of his cousin’s scooter at the ages of 16 & 17. You see, right there, it doesn’t get off to a promising start. From past experience, straight off the bat you know that any story with this combination of characters is not going to end well!

Along the way, they have a puncture. My husband falls off the back and breaks his arm. Unperturbed by this misadventure, they decide that, as they are more than halfway there, they would carry on. So, Cousin takes the wheel to a garage but can’t get it to inflate properly, they then decide to make use of the inner tube from the too-large spare wheel tied to the back of the vehicle!

Somehow they make it to Blackpool and have a jolly time – Husband sets great store by the fact that they won a tiny 2″ model of Blackpool Tower on the Pleasure Beach before throwing themselves about on the dodgems. With a broken arm. With torn jeans and blood running down his leg.

It is 24 hours before he thinks to go to see the nurse at work and she packs him off to Casualty to have it x-rayed! He was most upset that he had to miss his scooter test the following week because he had a cast on. I think we’ll leave that story there. (In fact, he complained and requested a rewrite because I didn’t give enough attention to the miniature model of the tower! He insists it was the highlight of the day.)

He did, however, contribute to the project by remembering the zoo which prodded Mum’s memory a bit more. She remembered those poor animals in cages: big cats, polar bears and so on. They lived in cages underneath the tower. Thankfully, no longer. She said the aquarium was wonderful, with beautiful small fish of all colours and some large evil-looking ones too! The aquarium was the first attraction in the tower since the first owner bought the existing aquarium and planned to build the tower around it.

Mum and I couldn’t remember whether we went to The Blackpool Tower Circus or not. I recall one visit to a circus as a child, but I think that might have been Billy Smart’s Circus in  a proper circus tent on the local park. The memories are confused because the clowns at the Tower Circus included the famous Charlie Cairolli and Paul, whom I remember well, but I don’t know if I saw them live there or just remember them from television.

Then there was the time we went to see Blackpool Illuminations and the queue of traffic was so long I couldn’t put my foot on the floor of the Morris Minor because it was over-heating so badly! Our son had been keeping his much younger sister awake, chatting and singing and pointing out things of interest, until we finally reached the start of the brilliantly colourful spectacle along the Promenade. We turned round to see the wonder and delight on our daughter’s face, only to discover she was fast asleep after all.

I love occasions such as these, when we share family memories.

Family history is important because it acts as an anchor. It holds people together and prevents geographically distant family members drifting apart. My grandsons rarely see my mum, they have little interaction with her other than perhaps seeing her once in 18 months and receiving a birthday card. She is deaf and becoming increasingly forgetful and confused. She doesn’t use technology other than a basic tv and an even more basic landline phone. These stories help them see her as a person, to see that they are linked by more than a £10 note in a Christmas card. They help her feel involved in their lives when she knows that these titbits will be used in their schoolwork and she enjoyed making them laugh about her curlers on the bus.

I am aware of time passing and soak up as much as I can when we chat. Nowadays, though, it is often I who provide her with the memories as she confuses different events, times or personnel in the near past or present. But the distant past is mostly still there. She laughs at the time she outwitted her dad to go off with her friend to meet their boyfriends, only to find him waiting for her at the bottom of the stairs when she snuck back in. She loves to tell how she used to go to the pictures every week on a Friday after work and my dad would pretend that he was going there too so that he could go with her. They worked for the same company and his colleagues had bet him he would have no chance asking her out!

I write everything down and one day I will put it all together so my grandchildren can read the whole story and not have to pay a fortune to genealogy sites searching for information about their ancestors like I have!

Copyright: Chris McGowan

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Ode to Our Piano – What Happened Next…

Previously, in Ode to Our Piano …

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When we left off, our lovely old walnut piano was to be collected by Forces Support, the charity that supports families of injured and lost service personnel, providing professional help with unfinished house and garden projects. We were so pleased and relieved that such a great charity was going to benefit.

Here’s what happened next…

imageThey didn’t turn up! The van broke down. They did, however, come the following week. With no wheels and a broken tailgate lift. There were two of them. A big strapping young man and a small, pencil-thin 17 year old who looked like he’d fall over if you breathed on him. He was horrified when he saw the size and weight of the piano. He wouldn’t even try to lift the lid, let alone the whole item. I felt sorry for him. The strong guy kept looking at it and huffing and puffing, clearly shocked at the fact that a) it was a piano not a sideboard that he had to pick up and b) the weight of said item.  No way were they going to be able to get it out of the house let alone into the back of the truck.

They left, apologetically, saying they would report back to HQ and see if they could get more bodies, some wheels and a truck with a working lift. They would call us in an hour.

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Nope. None of those things came to pass. Next day, when I called, their manager said he had no further help and no other van and so we agreed that it would not be possible for them to take it after all. We were so deflated.

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We couldn’t believe how hard it was to donate such a beloved piece of our family history! During all of this, I had read that a recycling plant in Bristol destroys 300 old pianos a week because no-one wants them. They cost up to £6000 to recondition and people can buy new ones from China for £600.

Everyone I told said ‘It’s a sign’ and ‘You have to keep it’. It made me tear up, but the decision was made and it had to go.

We reluctantly looked at eBay, but pianos were just not selling, even for 99p. Next was an ad on Freecycle, but even that was against us: the photo went on upside down!

imageFinally, the tried and tested method of giving stuff away for free: a notice on the garden gate! We put one on the drive gate, one on the path gate.

The piano was positioned in the window to be shown off to its best advantage. All the schoolchildren filed past day after day, some craning their necks to take a look, some laughing at our tomfoolery, one girl took down our number. The signs were in plastic covers and tied on tightly, but they blew about forlornly in the wind and rain. Even the weather had its opinion.

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After several days we had all but given up. We were resigning ourselves to sending the piano to the local recycling centre – for which we would have to pay.

Late one afternoon, however, after the schoolchildren had paraded past once again, there was a light tap on the front door. I struggled to get to the door and couldn’t find the key! Eventually I opened it to find a woman standing there with her son still in school uniform.

Hesitantly, she asked if the piano was really available for free. Yes, Yes, Yes! Come in, I gushed, ushering them in like they were the Royal Family. She took one look and said I love it! Wait, I said, for I didn’t want any more hitches, you have to know that the left pedal has never worked and the third bottom key doesn’t work and the cat knocked over a vase of flowers on this corner, so there’s a mark and… and…

I could ‘hear’ my husband hissing stop, stop, you’ll put her off! but I wanted to make sure she knew what she was getting.

I’ll have it! she laughed. I laughed. Her son looked on amused almost shaking his head at these oldies.

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It turns out she has 6 children. The son who was with her, Will, had seen the ad on the gate and told her about it. His 13 year old sister, Lottie (love their names), was desperate to play piano and was teaching herself via YouTube! They thought she would love ours. I was delighted it was going to another family.

So today, their older brother, Sam, and his two unsuspecting mates turned up with a van – and no wheels! – and after half an hour of pulling and pushing this way and that, turning it first one way, then around, a lot of head-scratching ensued – how did we get it in there in the first place?!  Then, after getting it and one of the lad’s thumbs and another’s toe wedged against the door jamb and the staircase, they got it out, on its side. My heart was in my mouth the whole time, concerned someone would put their back out and at the way this poor old lady was being manhandled. I completely missed the photo of the successful manoeuvre when they had to tip it up!

I hope it’s not completely wrecked and they’re not disappointed.  Of course, these poor lads had to do it all again at the other end, which was just down the street.

So bye-bye, piano. My eyes filled up as they drove away.

She has finally gone.

Along with half the paintwork!

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Except, it didn’t end there! See Ode to Our Piano: Guess What?

Copyright: Chris McGowan

Ode To Our Piano, a Faithful and Long-Suffering Friend

Today is a momentous day. A dear friend is leaving us and I am quite emotional about it. The silly thing is, it was my idea. But that was last year. It was a whim. I don’t think I ever really meant to do it. But then, in the spirit of change that has swept through our house this past year, the idea grew wings and took flight last week when my husband suddenly uttered those fateful words: ‘if we got rid of the piano we’d have a lot more space.’

I let it sit. I thought about it. I felt sick. I went round and round with it. All the grandchildren loved playing around on it. Our daughter had her first lessons on it. My husband spent decades trying to play Frère Jacques on it (I won’t miss that!!) Our gorgeous ginger cat, Charlie, used to sit imperiously on the top, watching us all (and gave me a hard lesson about vases of flowers on pianos when she knocked it over and ruined the bottom notes forever).

And how can we forget our 5 year old daughter getting up at dawn on Sunday mornings, wearing her purple Victorian-style dress with its lace collar, Mickey Mouse shower cap on her head (!), singing Madonna’s ‘Like a Virgin’ while dusting and polishing her piano. (How I wish I had a photo of that, there must be one, surely!)

I remember the trapped fingers, the music holder breaking as Number 1 grandson and friend let the lid drop before folding it back; the blackbird that somehow came down the chimney, got trapped in the big lampshade then found its way into the back of the piano and refused to come out! Every toddler in the family has had his or her first music lesson on that piano. It is in the background of all our Christmas photos, bedecked with holly from our garden and candles made by our grandsons.

But the hardest part of letting go is the reason we have it in the first place.

Our daughter and her grandma were close: it was a relationship built on a mutual love of Polo mints and cleaning! She always carried a packet in the pocket of her apron and Grandma’s housework routine definitely had an influence on her grand-daughter. (If anyone needs any decluttering done, she’s the one to call!) Sadly, when our daughter was only just five, her grandma suddenly became ill and died.

Here is a photo of Grandma (wearing the ubiquitous apron) with me, taken in her garden where she had just cut me a bunch of sweetpeas, my favourite flowers.

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When Grandma died, there was a little insurance money which the family had to fight hard to claim – Denis Healey, former MP and then Lord Healey, helped us – and we wanted to do something special with it. We wanted it to be spent on something significant, that she would have liked and that would keep her with us. My husband said she always liked the piano even though she never learned, I too had always wanted a piano and our daughter had been showing interest when she went to nursery where they used to sing around the piano every day. So this seemed a good idea. We bought a reconditioned Wilson walnut upright with flower inlay, you could see that it used to have candle holders too.

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The chair was Grandma’s and went perfectly.

It was so exciting when the piano was delivered. We had a piano! I never thought I would see the day. I remembered my great-grandma’s black piano with the lace runner on top; the brown upright in our school hall that I loved to watch Miss Johnson play every morning in assembly, her toes going up and down and her fingers operating magically all at the same time; my best friend’s dark mahogany piano that I always envied and wished I could learn to play. Her mum said I could practise on it if I had lessons, but we couldn’t afford them. The nearest I ever came to playing an instrument was my wooden recorder! (But I could read music).

We organised lessons for our daughter when she was seven and I was sure it wasn’t just a whim. She and I would go along to her tutor’s house on a Saturday morning, and I would sit fascinated by the number of pianos and keyboards he had, always trying to work out how he got the grand piano into the living room – which also had an upright – and once when that room was having some work done, we had to go upstairs into a tiny box room where he somehow managed to fit an upright and two keyboards. It was like the Tardis.

In years to come, she went on to do her grades and play clarinet, five recorders and guitar. She loved Tori Amos and worked her way through her songbook during her student years, having long since given up formal lessons.

Now, her sons are having music lessons. They chose violin as their first instrument, and their mum accompanied them on our piano during reluctant violin practice at our house in the holidays. Here is the youngest teaching himself on the same piano having found his mum’s beginner’s book. He and his mum played a trick on me when, in a very bored voice, he called me to come listen to him do his violin practice. I found his mum playing violin and him at the piano with a cheeky grin on his face! He has since become keen on keyboard and drums and likes to compose his own music.

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This instrument took on such significance in our lives that it even had a room named after it: being in the fortunate position of having two living rooms, one of them became ‘the piano room’!

The piano also became a repository for significant, much-loved items:

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From the left, a cookie jar from Portugal (a wedding gift from student friends), my great-uncle Billy’s bachelor silver teapot (an apprentice’s passing-out piece), the Russian sculpture of a young woman’s head that has a thick plait down the back (a birthday present from my husband two days before our son’s first birthday). Next, my husband’s Morris Minor teapot, a gift from my mum and a replica of his real life pride and joy. Finally, the cake stand made for me by my very talented son, who seems to be able to turn his hand to creating something from anything being thrown out or abandoned. In the earlier photo of my grandson, you can just see in front of the sculpture, there is a clock he made from a bicycle tyre!

(Where am I going to keep all these now?)

This room’s become a bit of a museum: it also houses my great-grandma’s rocking chair, my grandmother’s Father Christmas cream jug, my great-aunt’s porcelain basket of flowers, a three-legged stool my mum bought me when our son was born and a more modern version made by Number Two grandson at school last year. That’s not to mention the shelves of photograph albums and 70’s cds (husband’s).

It’s time to let go. Our grandchildren live a long way from us and are growing up fast. The oldest (below) gave up piano and harp long ago, the boys now have their own piano and keyboard, the tiny ones will no doubt also benefit from them, too. When everyone visits, there’s never enough room to sit (especially in winter when everyone gravitates to the room with the woodburner), and I want the room to have a makeover.

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So we’re saying goodbye to our old friend. We wanted her to go to a new home, but finding one was a bit of a struggle. The local charity shops didn’t want it. Age UK* didn’t want it. I widened my search to the surrounding towns and a lovely lady in a Sue Ryder* charity shop gave me the name of a new shop nearby: Forces Support*. They help families of injured and lost servicemen and women with house and garden maintenance and building projects etc that were started but can no longer be finished off. The man who answered my call couldn’t have been more helpful or welcoming and once he had found his ‘spectacles’ took down my details and arranged a day for collection.

Now we are just waiting for the men to arrive. Agony of agonies, they phoned last week to say the van had broken down and could we rearrange?! It’s somewhat nerve-wracking. A bit like the day we had to take a very old and sick Charlie to the vets and she didn’t come home.

My eyes are watering.

Not long to go and it will all be over.**

Hang on: what are we going to call the piano room now it no longer has a piano in it?!

*http://www.ageuk.org.uk/

*http://www.sueryder.org/

*http://www.forcessupport.org.uk/

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** Except it wasn’t! See Ode to Our Piano – What Happened Next…Ode to Our Piano: Guess What?, and Ode to Our Piano – Flowers & Phew!

Here’s a fun video of Laurel and Hardy’s The Music Box to cheer us up! (If you’re reading this via email, you’ll need to click Like or Comments to take you direct to the post so you can see it).

Copyright: Chris McGowan