Wee Joey

I was a tubby little fellow. After the lean years of the war, my mother wanted to make sure that I was fed all the right things. Her doctor told her that a healthy start would set a child up for life so she probably overdid it a bit.

I was called 'Joey'. This distinguished me from my father, Joe and his uncle, also Joe. My mother still referred to me Joey well into my adulthood and long after everyone else had dropped the 'y'.

I can remember my childhood very well. Images, smells, specific events, toys, people are all deeply ingrained in my mind. It is difficult to relate them to a specific age or exact chronological sequence but I know from later discussions where we lived at the time. As my parents were new to the town, we lived in a small collection of Nissen Huts – wartime temporary homes made from a tunnel of corrugated iron with breeze block ends. The iron was finished with a black, tarry paint that bubbled in the hot sunlight.

The entrance was half way down one side. Straight ahead was a small kitchen with a porcelain sink. To the left was the living room and to the right, two bedrooms. There must have been a bathroom but I'm not sure exactly where it was. Just to the left of the front door was a coal bunker wooden lid that hinged upwards.

I have several vivid memories of this home. One was where I was in bed and a woman from up the road called Irene McCormick appear at the window. She held up a colourful sponge ball which she had brought for me as a present. I was very pleased.

We had a cylinder vacuum cleaner that ran on three wheels – two at the back and a rotating castor at the front. I was able to sit astride this and propel myself along like a little car. I had toys, but not many by todays standard. Some of them were home-made by my father or an uncle in Scotland. I had two teddy bears, Teddy Blue and Teddy White and a black Scotty Dog with a tartan ribbon round its neck. My father had made me a wheel barrow and a little pedal car and I loved both of them dearly. The only other toy I can remember is a solitary tin soldier with a drum. It was flat and two dimensional and I don't remember seeing any others.

In the next hut but one, there was another boy about my age. We would run around between the two homes playing with each other's toys. He had a little blue bird-shaped whistle into which they would put some water. When the whistle was blown, the bird would warble sweetly.

It couldn't have been long after that that we moved to out new council house in Wellington Avenue. Ours must have been the first block finished because I can clearly remember the houses opposite being built, the workmen running up and down ladders with hods full of bricks, the cement mixers and the strange contraption with a handle which flung pebbledash against the walls.

As council houses go, this one was relatively large and well appointed. It had three bedrooms, two living rooms, one with a large bay window and separate toilet and bathroom. Access to the back garden was through a long hallway that ran the entire depth of the house. I have never seen an arrangement like this anywhere else. Just inside the back door, was a cupboard for keeping coal. The fireplaces in the front and back living rooms were back to back sharing a boiler to heat the water.

At first, the inside of the house was painted with a watery pastel blue emulsion. The new plaster could not be wallpapered for several months. The kitchen was very basic. It had a few built-in cupboards but the large porcelain sink and draining board were open and just had a curtain hanging from a length of curtain wire below. There was an electric cooker but that was it. Washing machines and refrigerators didn't arrive until much later but there was a man who rented washing machines who lived along the street. He had a little van which held three or four upright washing machines and he would go round dropping them off for half a day at various houses. The washing machine would sit by the sink with a rubber hose fitted onto the hot tap and another outlet hose hooked over the side of the sink. On top, there was an electric wringer to squeeze the surplus water out of the freshly washed clothes.

As there were no shops immediately nearby, local merchants would come around regularly hawking their wares.

The bread man would deliver freshly baked loaves most days. 'The 'Baines' bread van was cream with big, black lettering on the side. Inside the back of it was divided in to several wooden shelves the entire length and width of the van. One shelf would be packed with his most popular loaf, which was a large white one with a golden crust on top and white flowery sides. The bread man fetched the loaves out with a long wooden paddle. On other shelfs, there were brown loaves, wheaten cobs, some soda farls and there were a couple of baskets of smaller soup rolls. Right by the door would be a few white boxes with fancy cakes and apple pies. You had to be well off to afford those!

McKinstry's greengrocer van was a large green one and had no back door, just a tailgate which was always down. Just inside was a set of brass scales and beyond that, a cascade of wooden crates. There were lots of potatoes or different varieties which left an earthy dust all round the door opening. Boxes of cabbage, turnip, carrots, onions and scallions were stacked beyond and neat rows of canned goods lined the walls on small lipped shelves. Seeing the greengrocer's van would bring the housewives out in their pinnies with wicker baskets to fill with the produce.

A very strange call would announce the arrival of the fish man in his little Austin van on Friday mornings. "Hernalaw, hernalaw", which translates as "herrings alive". Apart from the live herrings, still flapping around in a large enamelled bowl, he would have some mackerel and a few kippers hanging at the side. A big bucket would hold one or two large crabs struggling to get out over the top. I never saw anyone in out street buying crabs. You could easily get them for free a couple of hundred yards away at the 'Black Rock'.

The coal man came once a week with a bag of coal and bag of slack. I was always impressed with how he pulled the bags to the edge of his flat backed lorry, gabbed the top and swung round in one smooth movement until it end up on his leather covered back. Crouched forward holding the back over each shoulder, he man-handed the coal into out long hallway until there was a satisfying crunch as he tipped it all out into the coal cupboard.

McCartney's fish and chip van would come round one a week serving up greasy chips and battered fish sprinkled with much salt and vinegar and wrapped up with brown paper. One day, somebody noticed Mr McCartney filling up the fryer with potato chips that were well past their best and the name "McCartney's rotten fish and chips" spread like wildfire. For some reason, the van didn't come round again after that.

Joe Gillespie

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Joe Gillespie
Joe Gillespie

Joe reminisces about his childhood in Larne in the 1940s and '50s.