An Alphabet Of My Life: Z

Z=Zealous

Zealous is usually a word associated with religion these days, as in ‘Religious Zealots’. A rather old-fashioned word that has changed its meaning over time in society. In the past, ‘Zeal’ was a good thing. It made me think of brave soldiers, hard-working inventors, and charitable people who helped the unfortunate.

As far as this final word in the alphabet of my life is concerned, it is connected to ‘P’. I was very zealous in my political ideals when I was younger. Determined, committed, and keen to argue my side. On some occasions, this zeal on my part upset people. It made me enemies, and affected my jobs.

But I was undaunted, and continued to be politically zealous for the greater part of my life.

An Alphabet Of My Life: V

V=Violence

Fortunately, I have been more of a witness to violence than a victim of it during my life, save for a few notable occasions when I was on the receiving end.

At school, fights were common. They seemed to start over nothing, and end quickly. If teachers did not step in fast enough, a larger boy usually overpowered a smaller one to gain victory. I was popular enough not to be picked on, and good enough at talking my way out of potentially violent siuations when the need arose.

In my teens, South London pubs could sometimes be violent places. Older men, sometimes criminals or gangsters, might suddenly start fighting. Those fights could be brutal, involving bottles, broken drinking glasses, and anything heavy that came to hand. I tried to leave when that happened, or at least keep out of the way. But one time a man hit me with a bar stool, which knocked me flat and made me see stars. When he realised that I was not one of the people he was fighting, he helped me up and apologised.

Some years later, I was involved in a violent street robbery, attacked by three men as I was about to deposit money in a bank. When I tried to hang on to the cash-bag, they kicked me in the head until I had to let go. Luckily, I was young and strong then, so suffered no long-lasting effects.

Being an EMT can be dangerous. More dangerous than you might ever expect it to be. Drunk people, plain nasty people, psychiatric patients, drug users hallucinating, all of those are likely to try to do you harm. I have been kicked in the face by a drunk, threatened with knives, a machete, and even a loaded shotgun. It was hard to believe when I joined the Ambulance Service, that such a large percentage of the public in London would consider me to be a valid target of their violent aggression.

But the real violence was what I witnessed in my job, not what happened to me personally. Stabbings, shootings, terrorist bombings. Faces slashed with knives or burned with acid, terrible beatings with blunt objects. Long bones broken, skulls fractured, noses and ears cut off. Murders by strangling, murders by drowning someone in a bath, toilet bowl, or wash-basin, and on one occasion, even a decapitation using a hand-axe. It is equally hard to believe how quickly I got used to such things, and was not fazed by them.

London can be a violent city. If you are somewhere at the wrong time, or involved with the people for whom violence is always their first option.

An Alphabet Of my Life: S

S=Science

This S is about the applications of science in my lifetime. Things that were unimaginable when I was born are commonplace now. Some of those are materials; things like Teflon, Polyurethane, Velcro, Waterproof Fabrics, Memory Foam, Polyester. They have provided advances in comfort, ease of use, preserving and cooking food, and in safety wear for those working outside. Unfortunately, they have also contributed to landfill, the pollution of the oceans, and even microparticle contamination of human bodies.

Everything we invent comes with a price, it seems.

Medical science has exceeded all expectations since my birth in 1952. Birth control, In Vitro Fertilisation, Open-Heart Surgery, Genetics, DNA, Artificial Valves, Pacemakers, Organ Transplantation, and Micro-Surgery. The eqipment and expertise to care for a premature baby that would previously have died. Drugs to control Diabetes, Epilepsy, and many other life-changing or life-threatening conditions. Add to that the advances in Scanning, Medical Lasers, the ability to operate on babies in the womb, and an adult from 1952 would find it hard to comprehend the amazing possibilities 70 years later.

Life expectancy has extended significantly since I was born. Average life expectancy in 1952 in Britain (male and female lifespans combined) was 69.17 years. 70 years later, it is now 81.65 years. That has brought with it a huge number of problems. The increase in elderly people with Dementia. The problems of caring for the elderly and disabled in their own homes, or in dedicated old people’s homes. Hospitals full of old people who cannot be easily discharged after breaking bones or having major surgery. The cost of paying pensions to so many more people who lived much longer than expected, and the reduced birth rate failing to supply enough working people to pay the National Insurance and Taxation required to fund such an ageing population.

Back to everything we invent coming with a price.

There are other scientific achievements in my lifetime that were less desirable.

Atom bombs were replaced by nuclear bombs, and those in turn replaced by thermo-nuclear bombs. Military weapons became more advanced, and the ability to kill more people from a greater distance is the darker side of ‘progress’ during the last 70 years.

(Technology will be dealt with in ‘T’.)

An Alphabet Of My Life: N

N=Nostalgia

I have always been a nostalgic person, even when I was quite young. Once life started to become ‘modern’, in the late 1960s, I was only 16, and already looking back to when I was at primary school, spending a lot more time around my family, and living close to the docks in South London.

Once I was in my twenties, and married, I looked back on my teens as my ‘golden years’, before the onset of adulthood and responsibility made me into a different person. I backed this up by having a collection of records from long before I was even born, the dance bands and crooners of the 1920s. I preferred the fashions of those pre-war years too, and often felt I had been born in the wrong decade.

That applied to films too. I was never happier than when watching the musicals of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, or the ‘film-noir’ productions of the late 1930s and 1940s. My favourite architecture was Art Deco, and my favourite painter was Tamara De Lempicka. The singer I listened to more than any other was Al Bowlly, who was killed during the bombing of London in 1941.

By the time I turned 40, I had moved back to the area of London where I grew up, and revelled in the nostalgia that surrounded me, even though the Docklands Developments of the early 1980s had changed parts of it beyond recognition.

During my time as an EMT, I always felt that job was better during the first ten years I did it. Once it became more complex, and the staff more self-important, I would drone on about how much better it had been in the past. I couldn’t shake that feeling, despite being advised by everyone to ‘look forward, not back’.

Once I retired in 2012 and moved away from London, I wallowed in nostalgia on a daily basis. As any regular reader of this blog will know, I not only have a Category that covers nostalgia posts, I write them and publish them all the time. I hasten to add that I am not seeing the past through rose-tinted glasses. I am well-aware of how much harder life was for so many back then, and even more so when I was a child.

But I loved it, and I am not apologising for being nostalgic.

An Alphabet Of My Life: H

H=Holidays

Some of my earliest memories are of going on our annual summer holidays when I was a child. They were always in Britain, and usually by the coast, or an easy drive to the sea. I was constantly car sick as a child, and with no motoways then, the trips from London to Cornwall took so long, we stayed overnight on the way. Cornwall was favoured, as we could stay with one of my dad’s relatives in Penryn, a man I called ‘Uncle John’ who was in fact my dad’s oldest cousin.

It always seemed to be sunny and hot in those days, and our two week holiday consisted of sand castles, ice cream, and huge beaches like Praa Sands, and Newquay. Evening meals would often be fish and chips, or the famous Cornish Pasties.

Then when I was 11 years old, I went on a school trip to France. That gave me the bug for foreign travel, and I eagerly went back on more organised trips to places further south in France, like Biarritz and Royan. Those trips were always by sea ferry followed by train-travel, and I loved how everything seemed so different to England, and more exotic.

By the time I was 14, I considered myself far too old to go on holiday with my parents, and they travelled without me. But as my mum had no desire to leave the UK, they continued to holiday there. As a result, I spent a considerable time not going anywhere on holday, and just stayed at home.

When I met my first wife, she was incredibly well-travelled and had already been to every continent except Antarctica. She was eager to introduce me to places she knew, as well as those she had not yet visited. I went on an aeroplane for the first time at the age of 23, to travel to Tunisia. Once we were married two years later, we could afford to take two holidays every year, and my travels really began. We went to Greece, Crete, Turkey, the Soviet Union, (Moscow, Leningrad, and Kiev) France, (three times) East Germany, West Germany, (Berlin) and Kenya.

After we split up, I lived with a much younger woman for a time. She was also interested in travel, and we took a long trip to Soviet Central Asia and a part of Mongolia, including Tashkent, Samarkand, Dushanbe, Ulan Bhator, and Alma-Ata. With the holiday starting and ending in Leningrad, I got to go back there too. We also visited the WW1 battlefields in Belgium and France, staying in Ypres and Arras.

Then I married again, and with my second wife I visited Egypt, taking a Nile cruise. We also had a long weekend in Amsterdam, and a week in Paris. Other holidays were closer, including the Cotswolds and Pembrokeshire. We also went back to Cornwall, but had a rain-soaked holiday in Looe. One highlight was a trip to Northumberland, taking in Seahouses, Alnwick, Holy Island, and Bamburgh. Whitby provided another holiday location, and we explored North Yorkshire from there.

Following a second break up, I travelled with a girlfriend to Bruges, Normandy, and Edinburgh. Then I went to China alone, to visit a friend who was living and working there. He lived in central Beijing, and that offered me a memorable stay in and around the capital of China, where I finally got to see The Great Wall.

Once I met Julie, we had to consider her children. We took two of them (the younger girls) on enjoyable holidays to Somerset, Bulgaria, and Turkey when they were still at school. But we were also able to get away alone later, going to France, (Carcassonne) Morrocco, Singapore, Malaysia, Barcelona, Ghent, Rome, and Prague.

That trip to Prague in 2011 was the last time I left England. I retired the following year, moved to Norfolk, and we got Ollie. Holidays were now something to also accommodate our beloved dog, and since then we have returned every year to the Lincolnshire coast, save for one year when we rented a cottage in Kent.

I had finally lost the urge to travel abroad, and allowed my passport to expire in 2016. We didn’t want the hassle of airports any longer, and the problems of car parking and dog-kennels. We had seen some great places, and were now content to stay in England.

My holidays had finally turned full circle.

An Alphabet Of My Life: G

G=Growing Up

This was my first choice for ‘G’. I started to write about growing up, and then I remembered I had already posted something almost identical, back in early 2021. So I deleted the part I had started to write as a draft, and I am adding a link to the 2021 post instead. Most of you will have seen it before, so this will mainly be for new followers.

Growing Up

An Alphabet Of My Life: C

C= Cold and Cars

I could not decide between these two choices for ‘C’, so included them both.

Cold.

Many of my childhood memories are about being cold. Until I was fifteen years old, I did not live in a house with central heating. We relied on one main coal fire for warmth, with the addition of a paraffin-filled heater to ‘take the chill off’ in communal areas like landings. That thing chucked out enough fumes to give you a headache, and was the cause of many house fires too.

This meant we had to have hot water bottles placed in the bed early, or face that freezing feel of ice-cold cotton sheets in an unheated bedroom. I also wore thick pyjamas, and in the dead of Winter, socks too. I still remember my feet coming into contact with the hot water-bottle when it had got cold, and kicking it out of the bed.

Once I was aged ten, I was considered to be old enough to light the fire when I got home from school before my parents returned from work. This was a lengthy process, and quite tricky to achieve. Old twisted newspapers would be placed in the grate, topped with kindling wood, then just enough coal to get the fire started. It could sometimes take ages for the coal to ‘catch’, and if I added more coal before it was actually glowing, I was in danger of extinguishing it completely.

We lived through some harsh winters too. The bad one of 1963 lives on in my memory. It was the coldest for 200 years, and even froze the sea around the coast. We had frozen pipes that caused water shortages, and I can remember arriving at school shivering, despite wearing my duffle coat, balaclava helmet, school cap, a scarf, and gloves. Although the school had heating, the old Victorian building seemed to retain the overnight cold, and we were not allowed to sit in class wearing our outdoor coats.

Small wonder I hated being cold as I got older, and even now I dread the arrival of snow and ice.

Cars.

My dad had a car when I was very young. I remember being in the car as a child, and watching him change gear as we drove along. Cars were very different then. They frequently broke down, had tyres with tubes that punctured easily, and required a fair level of mechanical knowledge on the part of the owners to keep them running reliably.

By the time I was 14 years old, all I could think about was driving, and having my own car. Even before I could apply for my driving licence, my dad bought me a used car. He stored it in the garage, and showed me the controls, how to check the oil, and how to do routine things like adjusting the points, changing spark plugs, and checking the tyre pressures. He would reverse it out of the garage so I could wash and polish it at weekends, but as it was not insured for me of course, I never got to try it out properly.

Some time later, once I had my learner licence, I was put on the insurance so that friends who had already passed their test could sit next to me as I drove around. Though I resented having to display the prominent ‘L’ plates front and back.

When the time came to apply for the driving test, I learned in a driving school car that was much smaller than mine, because it made sense to have dual controls. On the day I passed my test, I put three gallons of petrol in my own car, and drove the fifteen miles into Central London, into the busiest traffic in Britain.

That started me on a lifetime of driving, during which I drove almost every type of vehicle imaginable, including quite large trucks before the need for a separate Heavy Goods Licence. Then later I drove emergency ambulances around London, using blue lights and sirens. In between, I passed my motorcycle test, and used a motorbike to commute to work.

It has taken me almost a lifetime to stop being excited about cars. My current car is 15 years old, and is the oldest car I have ever owned and kept. It was 5 years old when I bought it second-hand, and I hope to hang onto it until I am no longer driving.

I wrote about the cars I have owned and driven on this blog, with photos of the models concerned. Here’s a link.

Cars: My Life On The Road

I also featuured the various ambulances I drove and worked in in London. Here’s a link to that.

The Ambulances I Worked In

An Alphabet Of My Life: B

B=Bermondsey.

Very few people will know about the existence of Bermondsey. It was once a London Borough, and is now just a district, consumed into the huge Borough of Southwark, in South London. It had its own council, Bermondsey Borough Council, responsible for refuse collection, Libraries, swimming baths, housing, public buildings, street lighting and roads, among other things.

It is where I come from, born into two rooms above an old lady who lived next door to the gates of the biscuit factory. It was close to the River Thames, boasted docks and wharves, and is directly at the southern end of Tower Bridge.

When I was a child, it provided a happy life for most residents. There was the Solarium, for public health, and the marvellous main Library in Spa Road, where I discovered my love of books in an atmosphere of complete silence, presided over by severe female librarians. I could take out three books a week, every week. And I did.

There was also full employment. The Docks, the Leather Tanneries, the Jam factory, the Vinegar factory, and the Sausage factory where my paternal grandmother once worked. The biscuit factory priovided employment for my mother, who worked in the offices, and the Flour Wharf was where my maternal grandfather worked, on the banks of the River Thames close to London Bridge.

It was a working class area, with predominantly white British residents. In fact they were predominantly Londoners, and most from the same families well-known in the area. We played in the parks and on the many bombsites left over from WW2, and most of our relatives lived in the same street, or the next street over.

Every corner had a pub and a corner shop. Some streets had small rows of shops, and there was the nearby street market in Southwark Park Road. We had a small cinema, a branch of Woolworths, and there was nothing we needed to leave the borough to buy, unless we wanted to. It was a self-contained community, in every sense of that description.

For many years, I described my self as being ‘From Bermondsey’. Not London, not South London, but Bermondsey. I was proud to be a ‘Bermondsey Boy’, to go to school in Bermondsey, get my haircut in Bermondsey, and to go to the Wimpy Bar in Bermondsey. I felt I had little or no need (or desire) to leave that small borough.

Then in 1967, when I was fifteen years old, my dad decided to leave Bermondsey and buy a house in the Kent suburbs, fifteen miles east. I never really forgave him for that, and for the next two-plus years I made the long commute to and from school, often staying with friends or relatives back in Bermondsey at weekends. I had my first serious girlfriend in Bermondsey, and once I was driving, it was my first choice to drive back and spend time where I felt comfortable.

Many years later, and much of that area has been gentrified. The pubs have closed, and outsiders have moved in paying small fortunes for houses once considered to be slums.

I remain content with my memories, and have written quite a lot about it on my blog. Here’s a link.

https://beetleypete.com/?s=bermondsey

Visiting My Mum

When we lose loved ones, they live on in our memories. In my case, they often appear to me in dreams too.

I went to bed before midnight last night. I felt tired after a reasonably busy day, and went straight to sleep. Not long after, I was visiting my mum.

She spent her last years in a small flat in South London. When she became almost immobile with breathing problems, I would visit her there, go out and buy her shopping, then cook her some meals to leave in the fridge and freezer. Before leaving for home, I would always watch her eat a meal, to make sure in my mind that she was getting some decent food instead of existing on sweet biscuits and cake.

Her living room was small, but she had a folding table and two chairs under the window. That was for guests to sit at if they wanted to. She remained in her armchair, and ate her food from a lap tray. I was watching her eat, which was a slow process, as she had to rest between mouthfuls and catch her breath. She was talking to me about when I retired from work, and moved to Norfolk. That dates the conversation as sometime in 2011, as we had just bought this house that summer.

She was also talking about the pets she had lost, and lamenting the fact that she was now too ill to get another dog. She hoped that I would get a dog when I retired, and bring it to London to see her. I spoke again about the possibility of her moving in with us once we moved in 2012, but she was adamant that she wanted to stay in London.

It was completely real, and totally familiar to me, like watching a video of us recorded at the time.

But most dreams also have a surreal element, and the next thing I knew we were walking across a cemetery to find the grave of someone we knew who had been killed in the Falklands War. Except that she could not have physically managed that, and we didn’t know anyone who had been killed in that war.

Before we found the grave, I was woken up by a severe bout of cramp in my left leg. I had to get out of bed and stand on the leg to ease the pain, and I was surprised to find myself in the bedroom in Beetley, and no longer standing next to my mum.

Whatever part of my subconscious brain recreated that visit to my mum, I am glad it did.