Wartime rationing had abated though things were still short in supply; we went without a lot, but my peers and I didn’t feel deprived. Until Coronation day came.
During that sunny June afternoon in 1953, I became aware for the first time that fruit came in more exotic packaging than apples and pears. We had a street party and were each given a mug with a picture of the new queen on it. But the biggest surprise was the strange looking object sitting on top. “It’s an orange,” I was told. I can see that, I thought, but what is it called? I eventually realised it was called an orange and wondered why the banana sitting alongside wasn’t called a yellow. (That’s not true; I just thought you’d enjoy the joke.) However, it was the first time I’d seen an orange, and that was long before I had a banana.
Portsmouth was paradise for us kids in the days before the words health and safety were joined together by wicked Nanny Spoilsport. Every street had at least one bombsite. Piles of rubble could be quickly reformed as castles and fortresses, as disused Anderson shelters became secret caves and dens.
We were allowed to play with matches. Fireworks were proof of manliness, testing the nerve of challengers who dared to claim they could hold the lit penny banger longer than you could. The true hero was the one who didn’t let go at the last moment. One’s ego remained intact, even if the inevitable explosion smarted more than admitted.
Stunt cycling was a ‘had to do sport’ in the days when BMX meant Billy Mannings eXperience. Every cycle was custom built to specifications laid down by whatever bits and pieces could be scavenged from bike carcasses discarded as write offs. A frame came from here, wheels, preferably the same size, from there. Add a chain, saddle, pedals, handle bars, brakes optional, and you were in business ready to test your skill.
We’d hold speed trials on Portsdown Hill. Stamina tested by being able to cycle to the top without getting off and pushing; endurance proven by stopping for nothing as we raced for the fun fair at Clarence Pier. That’s where our real daring would be defined.
This could only happen in winter, when the seas were roughest. There’s a walkway running from Clarence pier up the Battery, about a yard wide with a mile drop on either side. Timing was crucial. A big breaker would smash against the sea side of the wall and crash over the top. You had only seconds to make the sprint to the other side before the next wave would claim your life, or at least give you a good soaking. We all survived, but the long ride home, soaked to the skin in mid winter is something you never forget.