IF you read to your children or grandchildren books such as Each Peach Pear Plum, Burglar Bill, The Jolly Postman or Peepo! you will be familiar with the name Allan Ahlberg. You may not know that Allan comes from the Black Country and in his latest book, his first for adults, he reminisces about his childhood.
The Bucket: Memories of an Inattentive Childhood, published earlier this month, is a collection of poetry, short stories and snippets of memory inspired by Allan’s early life in Oldbury. The title comes from the games he played, filling a bucket with water to make rivers and seas in his backyard, and from a school report he received at Rood End Primary.
Although Allan grew up in Rood End he was born far from our region, in Croydon in 1938. He was soon placed in an orphanage and put up for adoption. He was taken up by George and Elizabeth Ahlberg, his mother travelling by train from Oldbury to London to pay the adoption fees and bring him home.
As Allan tells the story, his father was largely absent during his early life, working long hours of overtime as a labourer or fitter’s mate at Danks’s or some other factory in Oldbury. He’d leave for work in the morning before Allan was awake and not return until after Allan had gone to bed. But he was still a strong influence on young Allan and the books contains evocative verses in which he recalls the smell of his overalls, his dirty worker’s hands and his whiskery kiss goodnight.
His mother worked as a cleaner but Allan writes mainly about her at home – helping her to work the mangle in the wash house, playing beneath the clothes horse as she irons, getting a clip round the ear when he deserved one. He also writes movingly of the time when a girl’s taunts told him that he was adopted and he ran home to his mother:
“I see her now, her raw red cleaner’s hands twisting away her apron as she struggled to speak. Adoption was a shameful business then in many people’s eyes, the babies being mostly illegitimate. Better not speak of it. Eventually, her altogether collapsing face. Her tears. Her reaching out, my flinching away. And the love she urged me to believe in.”
Allan records many childhood instances in his book – being taken by his mother to tend a relative’s grave at Brierley Hill and being scared by the squeals of the pigs at the Marsh and Baxter factory; playing football in West Smethwick Park; walking from Rood End to the other side of Brandhall golf course to pick bluebells; a gang of boys from his school, among them his cousin, breaking into Danks’s yard and “treading the boiler”, climbing inside a boiler and making it roll about by all walking in step.
Anyone who grew up in the Black Country in the 1940s will recognise much in Allan’s description of Oldbury:
“Coming down off the Rounds Green Hills or from Dudley Castle, you’d hold your nose and dive back in. An atmosphere, a soup, cooked up to the town’s own recipe. Oldbury was a place you could walk around with your eyes shut and know where you were. British Industrial Plastics, Guest, Keen and Nettlefolds, The Brades, each had its own aroma. There was a glue factory that boiled up bones. The canals – Oldbury was a sort of Venice – were green and scummy. Marlholes bubbled away like New Zealand geysers and glowed in the dark. The smells were sulphurous, not-metalled, lead-filled, but also, surely, medicinal. Microbes and germs had as tough a time as we did in those days, in that inoculated air.”
Allan attended a number of primary schools as his family often moved house, trying to get one with an indoor toilet, he says. He attended the Good Shepherd Primary School, then Tabernacle Street Primary, before settling at Rood End Primary, passing his 11-plus and going on to Oldbury Grammar School.
He was a great reader, being a member of three libraries so that he could take out more books, but despite that he was not an academic success. On leaving school he had a succession of jobs; his chemistry A-level got him a job at Dunlop, but he injured his hand and then went to work as a postman, a plumber’s mate, a stint of National Service and then he worked as a gravedigger.
Mr McGibbon, the superintendent of parks and cemeteries in Oldbury, suggested Allan should become a teacher and he became a pupil-teacher at Bleak House Primary before attending Sunderland Teacher Training College. There he met his wife, Janet, who would illustrate many of his children’s books before her death in 1994.
Allan now lives in?Bath but he returns to Oldbury two or three times a year; he visits his cousins, has a drink in a pub and tends his parents’ grave in Oldbury Cemetery.
Allan’s book is a fine evocation of a typical Black Country childhood in the years around the Second World War, describing a world that has all but disappeared today but is still fondly remembered by those that lived through it. Those with a similar background will find much that is familiar in the book, things that will make them smile and bring back memories, while for others it is a fascinating insight into the recent past.
Allan Ahlberg’s The Bucket: Memories of an Inattentive Childhood is published by Penguin Viking (ISBN 978-0-670-92303-8), priced £10, and is available from all good booksellers.