I vividly remember the smell and feel of dirty air, and the sight of ruined buildings from The Blitz that happened a full decade before, long before my time. But we were told to ‘keep away from the bombed buildings’ because they were dangerous. Of course, telling children that something is dangerous only makes it sound more exciting. The air really was filthy, and I had my neck scrubbed every time I came in from outside. And there was this awful, awful fog and smog, yellow and thick and impossible to see through — until the Clean Air Acts kicked in. I remember my father moaning about it to the local Bobby. Not that he could do anything about it, just sympathise. “This town’s really dirty,” Dad said, and the policeman nodded. We were always coughing and bronchitis was endemic. Then the air got cleaner. The Great Storm flattened all the prefabricated ‘temporary’ housing — the ‘prefabs’ — where the bombed out people had been living for over a decade. Goodness knows how they managed before permanent housing was ready. Most were rehoused in blocks of flats, seemingly thrown up overnight. Or perhaps the Council planned better than they knew and the flats were waiting for them, buried under red tape. Everyone hated the Council flats, and I was warned to keep away from them as well as the bombed buildings. We were all dreadfully prejudiced against the people in them, and said the children were violent ‘juvenile delinquents’ and their parents were thieves. There’s no doubt some of them were, but there’s no doubt that the suicide rate was higher in the flats, as well. Moving people into them tore apart communities. My sister and I felt privileged to own our own house. All this was in the first eight years of my life. But there were some very happy times. I remember the Student Rag with its parade of decorated floats and its comic boat race, all of us crowding together on Lady’s Bridge on The Wicker, to watch them capsizing and getting drenched with water hosed on them by the factory workers. And there was the magazine the students produced called ‘Twicker’ that I wasn’t allowed to read because it was too rude. But there were lots of green places, like Millhouses Park and Lido, and I remember especially going camping in Derbyshire with my sister when I was six and she was sixteen, and presumed to be responsible, although the whole exercise was really a subterfuge to cover her assignation with her boyfriend. “I think it would be best not to tell Mummy that we met Derek,” she said. That was about the highpoint, but it threw the dirty air and bombed buildings into sharp relief.


About Zoe Nightingale

I am a writer of short stories, novels, poetry and non fiction.
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