This is rather a whimsical post - I wasn't sure whether to publish it. Maybe I'll delete it later.
Recently I've been corresponding with a friend about memories of childhood - especially about family get-togethers, in an age when it seemed everyone lived locally, and almost the entire family could be assembled from a small area. My friend and I had some laughs about social rituals, things that our families always did (and said, and sang), and about how the roles of various family members have changed. Since he and I come from different parts of the UK, it has been interesting to note the similarities and the regional differences.
|Terraced street in Aigburth, some 10 years later than my tale|
I got to thinking about the New Year parties at my grandparents' house, when I was a kid (that's my dad's parents, in Aigburth, South Liverpool). I think we only attended a few times, mostly because my dad would normally have fallen out with one or other of his siblings during the previous year!
The gatherings were large - a lot of people crammed into a small terraced house. They were good-hearted folk, in a tough, noisy sort of way. We must have been at that itchy post-war period when the working class had a bit more money, and everyone was becoming keen on what they saw as middle-class status symbols and values. It was all a bit competitive, and all of it was loud and in-your-face. My posh Auntie May had definitely "rose up", and she had married the boss/owner at her work, developed a new Hyacinth Bucket accent (see clip, below), sent her kids to private school and moved to the Wirral. In a strange, ambivalent way, the family were proud of her, yet envied her, and really hated it when she drove over for New Year in the new Vauxhall, even though they bragged about it when she wasn't there, and stood in the freezing cold to watch it drive away when she left.
At this time, everyone still had their feet and their roots in traditions that were, at the very least, Victorian. The family would come on various buses (only May had a car), some would walk, bearing biscuit tins filled with sandwiches, home baking, even bowls of trifle. When people arrived, all the big winter coats would be piled on the bed in the upstairs room at the front of the house (the smell of moth-balls was stifling), and everyone was issued with the regulation cup of tea to warm them up.
And, I guess, a good time was had by all. Occasional neighbours would appear (though the family was not noted for being very open to strangers), and eventually there were boyfriends of my various cousins (my cousins were legion, and they were all girls, now I think of it). If there were enough newcomers to the family throng, the inevitable party games in the kitchen after the tea-party would include a game called The Obstacle Course. I think my participation in this game came when I was about seven, after a number of years of non-attendance (politics). It was a game you could only play once, but when you could no longer take part you could be involved in the organisation and, of course, spectating.
Even by the prevailing standards, this was an unusually noisy game - it must have been audible a good way up the street. It was necessary to have a minimum number of first-time visitors to play - maybe 3 or 4. There was an element of initiation in it, to be sure. The family's taste in jokes and fun activities was always dominated by practical jokes, some humiliation, just a whiff of sadism, and giving a newcomer the opportunity to demonstrate that they were a "good sport", prepared to laugh at themselves - certainly to be laughed at by others. Maybe this was a test to see if they were going to fit in...
The Obstacle Course game required the identification of suitable (first-time) participants, and then my Uncle Harold and Cousin Joyce (who were the loudest of all) would take charge. The players would be led into the hall by Joyce, where they would be prepared for what was to follow, and while the course was set up. When everything was ready, they would all be admitted to the kitchen (living room), and would be shown an improvised obstacle course, which they had to memorise as best they could; then they would be taken out into the hallway again, and would be given some additional instruction on rules and so on. All the non-playing family members would be seated around the walls of the room - they would be the spectators, and later would vote for the best performer.
|1950s clothes horse - we used to call ours a "maiden"|
The course itself featured all sorts of household items, arranged in time-honoured constructions that you had to crawl under, step over, wriggle in-between - there was a horizontal broom handle, supported on boxes, to be stepped over without touching it, there were all sorts of cunning arrangements of sofa cushions, the wooden clothes horse, covered in rugs, a step-ladder, stacks of food tins - a lot of ingenuity came into play. And, of course, you would have to negotiate the course blindfolded, with plenty of instruction from Harold - and the spectators, obviously.
The participants (or "explorers" as they were termed) were solemnly blindfolded, and led into the room one at a time. Others went in ahead of me, and the noise was indescribable - the main object of the game was that everybody shouted at the same time - support, conflicting instructions, occasional sympathy, lots of banter. My turn came - I was completely blacked-out. I could hardly breathe, in fact.
The door closed behind me, and Harold said, "righto, Tony - come forward two steps - that's good - a little further - very good. Now, the first obstacle is you have to walk under the step-ladder without touching it, so stoop down a bit - right a bit - no not so much - good. Now edge forward slowly - good - a bit lower - right a bit more..."
And from the onlookers came a deafening uproar of "lower - not so low, turn left a bit - keep your elbows in" and so on.
After the step-ladder I was sweating profusely, but was pleased to have got past it. There was loud applause. Harold shouted, "OK - now you have to step over the bucket of water, so you need to turn left, where you are - righto - stop when I tell you - now - stop - two little steps forward - stop - now - you're going to have to turn sideways for this one..."
And so it went on. In spite of all the conflicting shouting from the sidelines, I did remarkably well, wriggling through sofa-cushion tunnels, tiptoeing through little mazes of tins, stepping over things, all without touching anything. At last, clear so far, I had to jump right across a little hearth-rug, without touching it. In a blaze of glory, I managed to do this. The applause was fantastic - I was as pleased as I could be. Then I was allowed to take off the blindfold, and I realised that the room had been completely cleared, apart from the spectator gallery around the walls. All my gyrations and extreme high-stepping and wriggling had been in an empty room. Of course I was embarrassed, but I got to join the audience and watch the last competitor in action, and I have to say it still seems to be one of the funniest things I have ever experienced. Cousin Pauline's new boyfriend, in his fashionable new shoes, keen to make a good impression, earnestly stretching his legs to impossible angles to avoid a broom-handle which was no longer there, all to the accompaniment of riotous approval.
Harold did a virtuoso performance as ring-master, no doubt. Fantastic noise, tears of laughter - it is sobering to realise that probably only about three or four of the people present are still alive - where did all that noise and camaraderie go? Of course, there are dozens of descendants, but they live in Australia, Singapore, Canada - even London. I have no idea at all about my extended family now - certainly it would be impossible to bus them all to my grannie's house - it might not even be possible to trace who they all are. Changed times.
I also remember that everyone that took part in the Obstacle Course that year got a prize. The bad news was that it was one of Auntie Laura's home-made rock cakes, left over from the festive tea, and quite rightly so, since anyone who had eaten one before would know to avoid them.