Bermondsey summers

Another nostalgic post, from 2013. Not many of you have seen this before.

beetleypete

What is it about memory, that makes us remember summers as being better in our youth? Ask most people about the weather, and they will almost always agree that the summer was better when they were young.

Six weeks of unbroken sun, school holidays spent outside, with perhaps the occasional thundery shower, that helped to clear the air. Given that this might span a time period from 1958, to 1998, it cannot really have any basis in fact. Although I do not have the real statistics to hand, (and cannot be bothered to look them up) I am sure that we didn’t always have fabulous summers, with weeks of Mediterranean heat, and unbroken blue skies. So why is it that this is how I remember them?

Before we moved to Kent, when I was fifteen years old, I spent my summers on the streets of Bermondsey, a South London district…

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Bermondsey: The London Of My Youth

I was born and brought up in a borough of London called Bermondsey. Although it has since been amalgamated into the much larger London borough of Southwark, it still retains its own identity with the people who live there. It is adjacent to the south bank of the River Thames, and close to the iconic Tower Bridge.

In recent years, the area has undergone some ‘regeneration’, and become a relatively fashionable place to live. But during my youth in the 1950s, it was an industrial area of central London, and everyone who lived there came from working class families on low incomes.

Some of the typical local houses I used to walk past as a child.
The empty space is where the house was hit by a bomb, during WW2. You can see the wooden supports holding up another bomb-damaged house on the right.

The busy street market where all my family used to get their shopping.

My Mum worked in the Peek Frean’s biscuit factory, which can be seen in this later photo from the 1960s.

Other local employers included the Pearce Duff Custard and blancmange factory.

The Alaska Fur Factory was later closed, due to the unpopularity of real fur.
It is now converted into smart apartments.

The library I used to go to all the time to borrow books has also closed. It has become a Bhuddist Centre.

The imposing Town Hall, where I once went to participate in a regional quiz. Also closed, and converted into apartments.

There were many popular pubs in the area. This one still stands. The Gregorian Arms was well-known as a venue to watch Drag artists when I was a boy, and my Dad would occasionally sing at the piano there too.

Going the ‘Wrong Way’

Over recent days, I have posted a few stories and photos about my time as an EMT in the London Ambulance Service. The memories of those years rarely leave me, but they do tend to resurface more poignantly at times.

One thing I often think about is how we always seemed to be going into potential danger, as hundreds of people were fleeing in the opposite direction. During the IRA bombing campaign, ambulances would naturally be sent to the scene of explosions, or to standby after bomb warnings, as bomb disposal officers tried to defuse devices. It felt rather strange to be the only people heading toward such things, as we saw hundreds of pedestrians and vehicles making their way away from the scene.

After the St Mary Axe bombing in The City of London in 1992, we were sent into the area the following day. Our job was to remain on standby, providing safety cover for Fire Crews and investigators working in the affected area. This was a long way from our base, and not a part of London we usually worked in. Arriving on scene, it was incredible to see the devastation; but the strangest thing was the complete absence of people or traffic, and the thousands of documents and pieces of paper still fluttering around.

The following year, another IRA bomb wrecked the area of Bishopsgate, also in The City of London. Once again, we were only required to standby after the event, arriving to find something resembling a war zone.

Three years later, and I was in my house in London’s Docklands, getting ready to travel into work for a night-shift. There was the hollow thump of a large explosion, and the shock wave popped the seals on all of our double-glazed windows, making the large house tremble as it did so. I went outside to see what had happened, and could see smoke rising directly across the River Thames, in the area around Canary Wharf. I got ready quickly, and left to drive into work, expecting to probably be sent to what looked like a major disaster. Fortunately, by the time I arrived at my base, we were no longer required to go there.

On the 7th of July, 2005, I was no longer in the Ambulance Service. I was working as a communications officer with the Special Operations Group of the Metropolitan Police. Following a long night shift, I slept through a series of bombings that became known as the ‘7/7 London Attacks’. Waking up in the late afternoon, I switched on the news to see the full impact of what had happened that day. Four bombs had been detonated by Radical Islamist suicide bombers. Three had been on underground trains, and one on the top deck of a London bus. 52 people had been killed, and over 700 injured, in one of the worst terrorist attacks ever seen in London.

Central London was at a standstill, with all the stations closed, and buses diverted away from the scenes of the bombings. I knew that every emergency resource would have been required, so decided to go into work early, to see if I could be of any help. As I lived close to where I worked, I was able to walk in, a journey of less than thirty minutes.The most direct route was to walk south, straight along Tottenham Court Road. in the direction of my base close to Trafalgar Square.

It didn’t take me too long to realise that I was the only person heading in that direction. Everyone else was heading north, away from potential danger
I smiled as I thought to myself, ‘You’re going the wrong way’.

Ambulance memories: Disasters

During my time as an EMT in London, I attended the scene of a few significant major incidents. Some were accidents, others related to terrorism. Whatever the cause, you might well consider them to be disasters. These are my recollections of some of those.

1981. Oxford Street London. The Wimpy Bar bombing.
Mandatory Credit: Photo by ANL/Shutterstock (1445884a)
Devastation After An IRA Bomb Exploded In A Wimpy Bar On Oxford Street Killing Kenneth Haworth The Metropolitan Police Explosives Officer Attempting To Defuse It.<

Following a warning from the IRA, a civilian bomb disposal officer attempted to defuse a bomb planted in a burger bar. It detonated as he worked on it, killing him instantly. I was in an ambulance at the end of the shopping street, and we heard the sound of the explosion, and saw the smoke rising. We were not required to go to the incident, as he was beyond medical help.
I later wrote a blog post about that brave man.

https://beetleypete.com/2013/11/20/ambulance-stories-43/

1982. Hyde Park, London. Household Cavalry bombings.

The IRA detonated two bombs that day. One in Hyde Park, the other in Regent’s Park. The targets of those attacks were soldiers of the Household Cavalry, returning to barracks after ceremonial duties, and bandsmen of The Royal Green Jackets. I was in an ambulance sent to the Hyde Park incident. Four soldiers were killed in Hyde park, as well as seven of the Blues and Royals cavalry horses. As it was a terrorist incident, it was treated as a crime scene, and I did not have to treat anyone on scene.

1983. Harrods Store Bombing, London.


The famous London department store was hit by an IRA bomb in December of that year. I was sent in an ambulance to standby if needed. I was very worried, as I knew that my wife had gone to the shop that afternoon, accompanied by a friend from Paris who wanted to buy some Christmas presents. Luckily, they were still in the tube station opposite at the time the bomb went off, so they were unharmed. We were not required to do that much more, as there were many ambulances available. Six people were killed, including three police officers. Another ninety people were injured, some seriously. The high casualty rate was caused by the failure to evacuate the store when the bomb warning was received. My only part in that job was to confirm to a police officer that I could not render any help to one of the victims, a man who had been blown in two by the blast.

1999. The Ladbroke Grove Train Crash.

With my colleague, I was in the first ambulance on scene at what is still one of the worst transport disasters in British history. We were there for most of the day, dealing with numerous casualties, victims of severe burns, and attempts to identify body parts. Thirty-one people were killed, and two hundred and sixty seriously injured. It was the most serious job I ever attended, in almost twenty-two years. I later wrote this blog post about that terrible day. Perhaps the worst day of my entire career.
https://beetleypete.com/2013/06/22/ambulance-stories-41/

Just a snapshot of what we called major incidents. There were many more in London, but those stick in my mind.

My Medal


(Photo by Monster Medals)

A comment by Jennie Fitzkee on one of my ambulance posts reminded me about my medal. When you work in the Ambulance Service in the UK, which is part of the NHS, you receive a medal after twenty years of service. The following conditions must be fulfilled, to receive it.

Operational staff who reach their 20-year milestone with the Ambulance Service are awarded a Queen’s Ambulance Service (Emergency Duties) Long Service & Good Conduct Medal provided they have completed 20 years’ service, with at least seven years on A&E duties, and hold a clean disciplinary record.

During my service as an EMT, we had the long-running National Ambulance Strike, which I actively participated in. As a result, the London Ambulance Service decided to deduct the six months we were on strike from our service, meaning we had to complete more than twenty years to receive one. (I know, spiteful…) Most of us regarded the medal with some cynicism. If you stayed in the job long enough, you got one, whatever your actual operational experiences might have been.

So some staff worked flat out every day in busy areas, doing all sorts of dangerous and difficult jobs, whilst those in the outer suburbs had a comparatively easy life. But everyone got the same medal. It became known as the ‘Turning Up Medal’, as all it really signified was that you had shown up every day, for at least twenty years.

Then there were always delays in the presentations, as they had to accumulate enough eligible staff to make the cost of the occasion worthwhile. So by the time I had completed almost twenty-two years of service, I had still not received one. Then I decided to leave, and work for the Metropolitan Police. I gave up all hope of ever getting my medal, which I only really wanted so that my Mum could accompany me to the presentation ceremony.

Almost a year after I had left, I received a letter telling me that I could attend the medal ceremony, and bring two guests. However, as I was no longer employed by them, I would not be granted the benefit of wearing the dress uniform that everyone else would wear to the occasion. I wanted my elderly Mum to be able to see me get it, so I agreed to go anyway, wearing a conventional suit and tie.

The ceremony was held in the impressive Assembly Room of Church House, next to Westminster Abbey, in Central London.

Once all the recipients had been presented with their medals, we were allowed to retire to the rear balcony, where drinks and snacks were served. That place has an impressive view of the ancient Abbey. My Mum made the evening, by looking across at the most famous church in Britain, and declaring, “I’ve seen that church before”. (Failing to recognise it as Westminster Abbey) She then sipped her tea, and wrinkling up her nose, she remarked loudly, “This is as weak as water, and tastes like cat’s pee”.

But I got my medal, and Julie and my Mum were there to see it presented.

It now rests in its box, in a drawer somewhere. I have nobody to leave it to, so will probably give it to a museum one day.

The Ambulances I Worked In

This is not of much interest to most readers, and is mainly by way of me making a record of something personal. I spent a third of my life working in and driving ambulance vehicles on the streets of Central London. (We drove one day, worked in the back the next) I often look back on the jobs I did at the time, but rarely even mention the vehicles that we used to traverse the City, with its difficult traffic conditions. When I first started in the job, we still had some vehicles that resembled museum pieces, even then. As well as the distinctive two-tone siren, known as ‘Nee-Naws’, we had a bell to warn of our approach too. It was fitted into the front of the vehicle, and operated electronically from a switch inside.

By the time I was on operational emergency duties full-time, most of the vehicle fleet had been replaced with the more modern Bedford CF (General Motors) 2.3 litre ambulance. With three-speed automatic transmission, very light (not power) steering, and a thin-skinned lightweight body, this ambulance was very easy to drive, and to get around the narrow streets in parts of London. The sliding doors meant that we could park quite close to obstructions and still exit the vehicle, and they were also welcomed in hot weather, when we could secure them in the open position. They still had an electronic bell, which had now been moved inside, in front of the engine.

I worked in vehicles like that one for a very long time. The equipment inside had hardly changed from the 1960s, but the nature of the job was changing faster than it ever had. We were being expected to travel longer distances to cover work in other districts of London, and more and more equipment was introduced, making the interiors of the ambulances overcrowded, and unsuitable for the work. And it was also decided that we could no longer have sliding doors, due to ‘health and safety’ considerations.

After a lot of consultation between management and the purchasing authorities, with some input from the staff too, a new ambulance was commissioned for London. General Motors lost the contract to Leyland-Daf, now part of the old British Leyland car company, and we got the ‘modern’, wide-bodied ambulance. This had a lot more storage inside, and dedicated mountings for equipment like defibrillators and cardiac monitors. Still with automatic transmission, and now with full power steering, it boasted a very big engine in the V8 3.5 that was sourced from Range Rover.

Of course, it was heavier, so needed that extra power. It was also rather ‘top-heavy’, with a tendency to wallow when pushed hard. The extra width also made it less useful in getting through dense traffic, or negotiating small alleyways in some areas. In general, it was less suitable for the job in such a crowded city, and was initially unpopular with operational staff. I worked in vehicles identical to the one above for the latter half of my career, up to and including my last ever shift. We lost our beloved sliding doors, and the bell inside the bonnet too. The bells were removed, and stored in the garage workshops. Then they would be polished, mounted on a wooden stand, and presented as much-desired retirement gifts to old hands. Unfortunately, by the time I left, they had all gone.

I found this photo of the staff outside a London Ambulance Station. It is not the one where I worked, and I don’t know anyone in the picture. It was taken in the 1980s, but looks almost ‘vintage’. That was the uniform I was issued with when I joined, and wore for half of my service.

Insta-Life

Looking back over my old photos this week got me thinking. Back to a time when you had to have a camera, send off the film, and wait for the prints to be sent back. When I was a baby, it was still quite rare to own a decent camera, so lots of photos were taken by professionals, often at studios, or functions like weddings. Those photographers would rush back to their darkrooms, and return with ‘Proofs’ that they had taken at the wedding or party. They would be displayed on a board, and if you liked them, you could order copies to be sent to you through the post.

This lengthy process meant that such photos were treasured, and usually kept in albums. All too often, photos taken by family and friends might be blurry, and possibly over-exposed. But we still appreciated having a copy, as it was the only way of remembering that moment in time, or a big occasion. Nobody expected the instant gratification of being able to see themselves immediately, and they were happy to wait for the envelope to arrive in the post.

A long time later, and Polaroid came along with the ‘Instant Camera’. The print developed before your eyes as you shook it to agitate the chemicals, and it was now possible to see the photo within a few minutes of it being taken. The prints were black and white of course, and a small square. But it felt like magic. Unfortunately, such cameras were expensive to buy, and the packs of film that went into them also cost too much, compared to a roll of film, and the developing charge.

So we carried on with film cameras. Followed by ‘Cartridge’ cameras, ‘Disc’ cameras, ‘Flashcubes’, and all the other innovations of the 1970s. But we still had to send off the film, and wait for the prints to arrive in the post. Or we could go to a high street company that would develop the film, and supply the prints within forty-eight hours. There was nothing ‘instant’ about life at the time, unless you count instant coffee.

Compare that with today. Millions of photos taken on mobile phone cameras every day, all over the world. Posted instantly to Facebook, Instagram, Flickr, and numerous other social media platforms. Never have so many photos been taken, by so many people. Nobody today likes to wait for anything. It would be rare to see someone happy to send off some film and wait for it to come back. They post photos of themselves getting ready. Then photos of them in the taxi. Then photos in the club, party, or restaurant. A photo of their meal before they eat it, then what’s left after. The cocktail they have chosen to drink, and the friends around the table. Take the photo at 9 pm, and it is online ten seconds later. Plus you can save it on your phone for as long as you want.

Even if you never look at it again.

I am doing this too, to some extent. I take photos when I am out with Ollie, or visiting a place of interest. The memory card is downloaded onto my computer, and the chosen images added to a blog post. It’s not instant, but it is very fast. Convenience is all. Convenient food, convenient gadgets, convenient communities, and instant gratification.

But as I looked through those old photo albums this week, I know what I prefer.