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Horsebridge 1954 by Dave Taylor


 

It was 1954 and I was five. I sat at the Horsebridge and listened to a senior citizen describing Whitstable of a bygone era. We didn't have political correctness in those days... so, he was an "old sod". Now, in what seems to have been the blink of an eye, I have become an "old sod" but you mustn't say so.

Suddenly, as if bestowed with a degree in "senility", I can bore youngsters with my childhood. I can disapprove of things but accept responsibility for nothing. In fact, I have come to realise that the whole purpose of life is to learn to "disapprove". At first, you can't... then, you can... and, when you can, you sit on the seafront.

This is how old ladies disapprove of mini-skirts even though their own substantial undergarments can be seen from 50 yards. It is how old men disapprove of motorbikes... conveniently forgetting the Triumph Tiger Cub that ended in a ditch on the way home from the "Winter Gardens" in '59.

Reminiscence and disapproval are powerful tools and they work in tandem. Take the Horsebridge. What have they done to it! You can't move for BMWs, mobile phones and mummies and daddies. (That's the disapproval... now for reminiscence). When I was a kid, it was different. The Horsebridge was a place where "mums" took the kids after shopping in the High Street. At 4pm on a summer afternoon, the Oyster Store disappeared under a pile of string bags and we watched the butter melt through the holes.

There were "mums" everywhere and, believe me, "mums" weren't "mummies". They were weird. They sat fully clothed (coat and all) on the steps of the Oyster House with the temperature in the eighties. The more fearsome variety had moustaches and wore hats that never came off. TNT couldn't shift those hats.

The oyster house was, of course, an oyster store. Only two things came out of it..... workmen and oysters. Nowadays, it's a restaurant and cinema... and lots of things come out of it. In '54, posh people visited the Horsebridge to see how poor people lived. Now, poor people visit the Horsebridge to see how posh people live.

As a kid, I always associated the Horsebridge with Woolworths. There was no car... so, we walked to Oxford Street and "shopped" our way down the main road. Woolies was the last "stop" before we hit the beach. There was no fridge... so, the routine was daily.

Woolies was full of wonderful things.... toy boats, inflatable rings, buckets and spades. It had cylindrical ice creams that were unwrapped from cardboard covers and dumped on a cornet... shortly before being dumped on the floor. Oh, how I used to like those creaking floorboards in Woolies..... noise without blame.

Clever kids manipulated floorboards. They sidled up to old ladies, made a rude squeak and looked at them disapprovingly. This was good practice for later life, but it had to be old ladies. Young ones were SAS-trained, built like brick oyster houses and capable of opening a lobster claw at 50 paces with a single glare.

Despite those fearsome mums, I loved the Horsebridge. We struggled into woolly, knitted "cossies". We didn't have bathing costumes or swimming trunks.... we had "cossies" and they were quite remarkable.

It was about that time that I first heard scientists proclaim that "matter could neither be created nor destroyed". They obviously hadn't met a woolly cossie. A cossie started life at 5 ounces but weighed in at 50 pounds on contact with sea water. What's more... it kept growing. I was never very sure where a cossie should be worn. Initially, it was happy at the waist but, by "going home time", it gripped the knees. Even more remarkable was the fact that the woolly cossie returned to its normal size when mixed with fresh water. What was going on? Why didn't those scientists find out what the woolly cossie was up to?

 

 

Whilst the woolly cossie remained a mystery, the British class structure of the 1950s became an open book. Posh kids had class, dignity... and elastic in their woolly cossies. And, just to digress, it was about that time that I learned how unfair life could be. I noticed that Father Christmas gave good presents to rich kids and cheap stuff to poor ones. I was told it was the "thought that counted". But what was Father Christmas thinking about? Posh kids placed "thoughts" alongside their Scalextric. Poor kids placed them alongside dreams of a Scalextric.

I pondered the "Santa problem" many times but, ultimately, excused him on the basis that he was old and had to disapprove of something. He had simply chosen to disapprove of the poor. In fact, his disapproval increased in direct proportion to the degree of poverty.... which helped me to learn about maths. 

Thus the fifties became a time of learning and learning seemed to be a route to the ultimate goal of becoming a "posh" person. Little did I know that not all posh people were bright. This would prove a devastating discovery of the 1960s... one that would explain the existence of the Daily Mail and the reason for "off the road" vehicles that never go off the road.   

Anyway, back to the summer of '54. Just along from the Oyster Store, there was a pile of rubble. It had been a pier of some sort, but, to us, it was the place for a dramatic last stand against the Germans. The war had finished a decade before but we kids still fought the battles. From our pile of rubble and with wooden "tommy" guns in hand, we kept a watchful eye on the sea for U-boats.

Nowadays, Germans are likely to approach from behind and ask directions to "Ze Cvrab and Ze Oysta Huise". Quite right too... it means we're all friends.... but I can't help thinking that Hitler made a big mistake. If he had invented the twinning association before the Stuka, he could have marched down Whitehall within a month and no-one would have been hurt. My cousins would have had a dad.

In recent years, there has been the odd complaint about sea shells deposited on the beach by restaurants. The explanation? Shells on beaches are perfectly natural. That's true. We had them back in '54 but they came from the sea rather than a kitchen. Girls were interested in sea shells. Boys preferred the artillery shells that occasionally turned up at low tide. We often wondered whether the contents could be used to remove a hat from a "mum" but, ultimately, the matter was left in the capable hands of the bomb disposal squad.

Just behind the beach were boatyards. Some were still functional but one (now Cushing's View Car Park) was derelict. Even better, it had wild cats. Not the sort of cats with collars and tags. Real ones that would rip your arm off. Little old ladies toddled along to feed them. That's when I learnt about little old ladies. They disapproved of most things but not cats.... not even the delinquent variety. I am sure we lost a few little old ladies to those cats during the summer of '54.

In the years that followed, we also lost the boatyards.... replaced by houses for "posh people". To a child, it seemed strange. I understood that fisherman didn't need boats anymore because they worked at the Borg carpet factory but, posh people needed boats.... so why the problem?

That's when I began to understand what being "posh" meant. "Posh people" wanted boats that came from nowhere and were built by nobody. They wanted to live in a boatyard, not next to one. So, boatbuilders joined the fishermen at Borgs and made carpets. The foundations were being laid for the Horsebridge of the future and a new world of oyster companies that served oysters but didn't catch them. Sadly, the new type of oyster company wouldn't need carpets either.

By 1957, we were allowed out on our own. We had bikes from Father Christmas and I learned about coincidence. My bike was the same colour as the paint in my dad's shed. I was grateful nonetheless... really poor kids just got the paint.

Friends arrived at the back door to convince me that I needed a swim at the Horsebridge. It was always the back door . The front door was used by the "rent man" and coffins. If it opened without a "rent man", someone was dead. A dead "rent man" would have caused total confusion.

I soon learned the art of "back door to back door" salesmanship. The smarter kids would convince me that I needed a swim whatever the circumstances. Sunshine made sea water warm. Rain made it warmer. Cold weather made it feel warmer. Lightning made it perfect. So, off we went with cossies wrapped in towels and wedged between cycle lamps and handlebars.

By '59, TV had arrived in some homes. One family bought a set and the rest of the street moved in to watch. Some never moved out. Suddenly, we only needed the Horsebridge on Tuesday. That was Blue Peter night. We dashed home from The Oxford Street Junior School expecting Robin Hood or William Tell.... only to find a madman demanding that we make a birthday present from a toilet roll. We didn't have toilet rolls... we had the Daily Mirror. Besides, a present made from a toilet roll was the sort of cheap stunt that Father Christmas had been pulling since '52. By '59, he had been "sussed" and discredited.

Little did we know that, forty years on, a Blue Peter presenter would be "sussed" and discredited.... for drug abuse. Why the surprise? Anyone who spends September assembling "home-made" Santas from Fairy Liquid bottles has to be "on" something.

Soon, we cycled into the sixties and teenage years. Blue Peter continued but the Horsebridge lost out to Jacque's and Jimmy's arcades, Valente's Expresso Coffee and the juke box. But that's a different era, a different part of town.... and an opportunity for more disapproval and reminiscence.

By the time I was old enough to "rediscover" the charm of the Horsebridge, the developers had moved in. Like Blue Peter presenters confronted with a toilet roll, they had turned it into "something useful". Now, someone needs to turn me into something useful so that I can appreciate it. 

How do I say it? "OK, yah"? Now, where can I get a BMW and a mobile? There's a whole lot of disapproving to be done down at "Ze Cvrab and Ze Oysta Huise".

  

Dave Taylor
1999


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