Such bland words, such clichés, and yet they are truly the most fitting epithets for this little book that appeared among my Christmas presents. I wish I could think of better words. I also wish I’d read it when it first came out in 2003. It would have given me ten more years of enjoyment.
Allan Ahlberg grew up less than 5 few miles from me, and is only 3 years older, so his childhood and mine have a great deal in common. Had we lived a little closer, no doubt we’d have been in the same little gang (or its rival), traipsing around the streets and park looking for adventure – no, ADVENTURE! – and discovering the miracles of minute forms of life like sticklebacks, ants, beetles and woodlice. As it is, reading his memories and stories, I was back in my childhood: a raggle-taggle little band of boys and girls, often with one of the little girls pushing a pram with a fat happy baby in it (what young mother nowadays would entrust her baby to a bunch of 6 to 10 year-olds intent on having ADVENTURES?).
I used to envy those skinny little pigtailed girls in charge of a younger sibling, and sometimes they would let me push the pram for five minutes in exchange for a sticky boiled sweet when my budding maternal instinct grew too strong to be ignored. Five minutes was enough, though. I was glad really that my parents hadn’t had any more children after me and saddled me with the onus of caring for “the babby”.
I know that my nine-year-old self is still there inside me, and occasionally I manage to communicate with her. Ahlberg‘s little-boy self is definitely alive and well, and speaks eloquently through his verse and stories. I find myself identifying with him. We didn’t live in a Victorian terrace with a brew house and lavatories in the shared back yard, but I had plenty of school friends who did, and how privileged I thought they were.
A brew house was a marvellous place: equipped with washing facilities such as a sink and running water, a big copper with a fire under it on washdays, washboards, tubs, scrubbing brushes, huge green cakes of Fairy soap, wooden dollies, poshers and tongs, a mangle – and presumably, originally, ale-making equipment, else why would it be a brew house?
Ahlberg grew up in Oldbury, about 3 miles from where I was born, but I never went there. It was at least 2 bus rides, and there was no incentive to make the journey unless you were visiting friends. For the same reason, he would never have come down our way, but we have plenty of experiences and places in common. Even West Bromwich Market Hall gets a look-in, with the day-old chicks for sale, and I immediately saw it in my mind’s eye as it was in about 1950 or 51. On Saturday mornings, my pal Pauline and I used to go on the bus (a penny-halfpenny or three ha’pence each way) and look in the Market and Woolworth’s for something precious to spend sixpence of our pocket money on (2 oz of dolly mixtures, a tiny bottle of Evening in Paris by Bourjois, ribbons, a pencil sharpener…). That left threepence out of a shilling – so maybe an ice cream at Trow’s, which made and sold the best ice cream in the whole world, and had a little parlour where you could sit and enjoy it.
Ahlberg miraculously manages to evoke nostalgia without being nostalgic or prettifying the ugliness. I had forgotten the horror of the poor naked rabbits wearing furry mittens in the butcher’s shop, and the squeals of the pigs going to the slaughterhouse. The experiences in this book are immediate, lived, not re-lived. I could taste again the acrid air of the town polluted by seventy-nine factory chimneys and a hundred thousand domestic coal-burning ones.
“Why is the sky blue?” asked one of our young primary school teachers, and proceeded to give us a simplified explanation. We gawped in amazement, then one of the little boys put his hand up and said what we were all thinking: “Please miss, the sky isn’t blue. It’s grey.”
A book to cherish. Thank you, Allan Ahlberg. And thank you, Janet Ahlberg for the perfect illustrations.