First thing to know about Uncle Arthur is that he wasn’t my uncle at all – he was just a friend of the family. Has that practice disappeared? I had a few uncles of that sort – maybe in those days it would have been too awful for kids to have called friends of the family by their first names, but Uncle X was OK.
Anyway, Arthur and Mrs Arthur lived in the flat below us. Very shortly after VE-Day, my parents got married and rented an enormous Victorian flat in Princes Park, Liverpool. Immediately afterwards, Austerity arrived. My dad was told by Mersey Docks and Harbour Board (he was the chief radio and RADAR service engineer for the Port of Liverpool at the time) that all overtime was cancelled indefinitely, his wage dropped to about a third of what it had been and he was now stuck with a big flat he couldn’t really afford. Soon after that he had a new family that he couldn’t afford, either – that’s how it was in those days.
Arthur had never made commissioned rank, but had served in the RAF, a gunner in Bomber Command, and on the arrival of peace and the Brave New World Arthur was one of the lucky few who were offered a career which was beyond their obvious qualifications. Arthur was sent to night school to learn to be a teacher – which involved exciting stuff such as chemistry, which he had never got to play with before. Arthur got a bit hung up on the chemistry course.
My mum and dad (this is before I was born) used to do a lot of cinema-going, and, when Arthur was in the full ecstasy of his studies, they used to take his wife with them to the movies, and leave him to get on with it.
There are many tales of their delivering his wife home again at the end of the evening, to discover what Arthur had achieved during their absence. On a couple of occasions he answered the door with a demonic grin and a distinct lack of eyebrows – Arthur went through a phase of being fascinated by explosives. One weekend, he and my dad decided to test one of his home-made bombs on a derelict hen-house in the back yard. My dad (being the electrical man) devised a detonator and they set up their experiment one Sunday, placing themselves behind some stone steps which led down to the cellar. They threw the detonator switch, and…. nothing happened. This bomb was by far the largest Arthur had built so far, complete with cocoa tin housing, and the breathless excitement of the occasion was definitely heightened by uncertainty over exactly how much of the neighbourhood it might take out, so a non-detonation was not a routine event. Legend has it that they stayed behind the steps for a couple of hours before they dared go to check what was wrong.
I believe they abandoned that test, and dismantled the bomb.
My grandad was very dubious about the whole thing. “You’ll come in one night,” he said, “and there’ll be a bloody big bulge in the floor – you wait and see.”
Arthur moved on from his studies, and later on – in the time of my own recollection – he had a series of fairly extreme hobbies, all of which involved my dad and led to a crazy competitive element. For a while it was tropical fish – both flats suddenly had enormous tank systems in the kitchen window – I can still remember the Tiger Barbs, Mollies, various kinds of Angel Fish and – above all – Siamese Fighting Fish. There was money in Siamese Fighters if you bred them successfully, and then there was a lot of tight-lipped professional criticism and the competitive bit got out of hand. For a while, Arthur’s Fighting Fish were indisputably better than ours (though, naturally, we disputed it), but then they got a terrible disease and the whole thing petered out in financial loss and fits of the sulks. The most interesting thing that I remember about Siamese Fighting Fish is that if you put a handbag mirror against the side of the tank they would attack their own reflection, which was very bad for the fish but quite a lot of fun nonetheless.
Then it was soup. Yes – that’s right – soup. Our flat (and Arthur’s) was one day full of big earthenware pots, and there were strange soup stocks brewing away in all the cupboards, which involved secret shipments of pigs’ trotters, ox tails and all manner of spices. I can’t remember what happened to the soups, but then we moved on to bread-making (which was stymied by rationing), then briefly it was pickled onions (which is limited in scope, you have to admit) and the next big thing I remember was Pressure Cookers.
Do they still have Pressure Cookers? If I remember correctly, ours were made by the Prestige Company – the idea was that you did your cooking in a sealed pan which had a weight-loaded release valve. Since the boiling point of water depends on the pressure, it is possible to raise the cooking temperature by carrying it out at high pressure, so that application of a heavy weight to the valve meant that you could reduce the cooking time for a stew from (say) 4 hours to (say) 2 hours by raising the boiling temperature. If you cannot see much excitement in this – especially in the context of post-war Britain when there wasn’t a lot to spend your time on anyway – then I am with you all the way.
Anyway, the pressure cookers took on the same competitive edge which all the other hobbies had, but it all ended strangely one day when Arthur decided to try cooking porridge in a pressure cooker. He did a very careful calculation, applied a valve-weight which was well above the safety specification of the pan (you could get extra bits for these around the back of Birkenhead market), and reckoned that he could reduce the preparation of porridge (which his family hated, by the way) to about 15 minutes. Sadly, the valve stuck.
When the calculated time was up, Arthur opened his pressure-cooker in a state of great excitement and was disappointed and mystified to find that it was empty. In fact the valve had eventually freed itself, and a jet of super-heated porridge (which would have killed any life form it contacted) was released, forming a giant oatcake a few millimetres thick and about 1.5 metres diameter, which solidified handsomely on the kitchen ceiling, where it remained for a surprising length of time. Arthur retired from the Pressure Cooking Wars immediately (possibly on advice from his family), and my dad’s pressure cooker fell into disuse shortly after.
More seriously, Arthur eventually won whatever competition it was they thought they were in. He made a success of his teaching career and – despite the contempt that my dad heaped upon him in private – became the first of the two who was able to afford to start buying his own house. He had won – a small but decisive victory – for ever. He moved away to his new house, and my dad found bigger fish to despise.
I met Arthur years later – in my late teens I played for a local cricket club in Mossley Hill, and one of our yearly fixtures was against the local NALGO team (National Association of Local Government Officers) – probably their second team, in fact – and almost all of them were teachers at that time. Arthur opened the batting for them – still larger than life, still terminally cheerful, and very much as I remembered him from my infancy.
He had a daughter the same age as me, who eventually became headmistress of one of the biggest girls’ schools in Liverpool, but all I really remember about her is that she had a very serious accident and wet the floor in Mrs Pritchard’s class on about Day 3 of the first term of primary school – I can still visualize the puddle spreading on the parquet floor - and that brought an abrupt end to our friendship. I mean, there were standards, even in the age of austerity…