The memories of mine which I can’t clarify, because they are rather obscure, but gradually transform into scintillating light that vagueness in which the earliest recollection of my existence would appear to be involved, is derived from the scrutiny of sepia photo’s left in the care, by my dear departed mother, to my elder sister.
Diligent attentiveness within the past few weeks to time and date with which my search among the diverse paper’s and photo’s entrusted to her has been conducted, bringing to the fore memories of infancy in my hometown of Ramsgate.
The recollection of my father so elevated and erect by my side on the bordering quay by the slipway in the outer harbour one blustery winters day, articulating with some weather-beaten individuals in a mystifying parlance, I tried to conceal myself behind his exceptionally large military overcoat, hoping they wouldn’t observe such a small individual such as myself, the uneasiness I felt, and dread, that I would be transported away to some extraneous land, never to see my beloved parents again was all too real. I couldn’t have been much advanced in years, conceivably five or six.
The waters outside the harbour were furious. The forceful easterly winds had disturbed their journey up the channel as the tide began to turn, bringing in all manner of flotsam onto the vast beach that stretched as far as the eye could see. The waves white with froth showed their anger climbing higher and higher; meeting the resistance of the pier wall. Their temper exploded in spray and showered everything in frustration as it came crashing down on the quay where we stood, soaking everything in suds and bubbles, popping and hissing like a fizzy lemonade as it made its way across to the edge of the quay, falling in small rivulets into the comparative quiet muddy waters of the outer harbour.
It’s easy to see how the distribution of wildlife is dispersed in different directions on these occasions, how a completely isolated corner becomes teaming with all manner of life. A small crustacean, claws outstretched scurried across the stone path only to be caught in the current of a rivulet on its way to the depths of the harbour, splashing into the water ten feet below. Just two inches across its back, it had traversed the pier wall that was at least fifteen feet high from the waters below on the spray, landed on the path, another ten feet across, caught in the rush of water making its way to the outer harbour and dropping down another ten feet on the other side. All in the matter of a few minuets as I looked on fascinated.
Looking up to the seagulls remonstrating over a morsel thrown down by the French fisherman who had just birthed into the outer harbour sheltering from the storm, they too had put up with a buffeting during the night. Gutting some of their catch, the hungry gulls hovered against the gusts of wind, soaring high into the air as the turbulence caught them in an updraft struggling to maintain station over the boats below. Presumably loosing sleep made them argumentative with each other, fighting and squabbling like unruly children.
I silently revelled in the isolation of the winter promenade and pier walls even at that early age. The peace it seemed to give me, all the terror of the war years, the explosions, the dust and rubble, the noise of the sirens shrieking and screaming had at last seemed to have stopped. The tall figure of my father shielded me from most of the wind and spray. I remember gripping his trousers and holding on as if my life depended on it. The smell of oil and grease from his boiler suit had a comforting warm feel in a curious sort of way. He looked down at me, and I suppose the look on my face made him bend down and pick me up, as somebody dear to me later on in life said ‘A Prince of a man’ I loved him to bits and couldn’t get enough of his company.
His conversation ended and we retraced our steps back to the quay that separated the inner and outer harbour. I was, I remember in my element being carried, snuggling into his ruff army coat. The wind and rain that had started again lashing against us, he opened that big coat up and tucked me inside to shield me from the weather as we approached the big swing gate that had just been opened to the inner harbour. There was an air of expectancy on the quay that morning, a lot of hustle and bustle, the old dark green tea van in front of the sheds had pealing paint on its walls from the constant buffeting salt spray, a large metal bucket stood on the floor catching the drips that fell from the leaking roof, when it rained it needed to be emptied every five minutes or so. Nicknamed ‘the watering hole’ by the boatmen and dockworkers, it had been there all through the war years, to calculate the service it had given to so many appreciative men returning from France during those terrible years, would take a more articulate scholar than me, but still though, doing a roaring trade with steaming mugs of tea being handed out to all the dockhands that had gathered.
Something serious was afoot.
Everybody was bringing their empty mugs back and putting them on the counter, then joining a queue in front of a big pile of rubber tyres, each one had a rope attached, either with a big hole in which the rope went through, or some just tied round with loops in. This was happening on the other side of the quay as well.
Now I was interested.
I struggled to get down from my fathers hold on me; eventually he put me down on the quay. The rain had stopped and I remember padding across through the puddles to where all the excitement was. Standing in a line, on each side of the quay, each dockhand held a tyre and let it hang down over the edge.I wasn’t very tall so my vision beyond the men was limited, just a gap between flapping trousers, wellington boots with big thick socks over their edges and then if I was lucky a gap through it all. Without any warning the sky disappeared in front of me, an unearthly noise from the tyres the men were holding being compressed against the quay, a monumental wall of steel imperceptibly moving it passed before me into the inner harbour, it took what seemed an age, my little legs could have easily outrun this monster. The thunder of engines, the smell of wet metal mixed with smoke from the stack as I looked up, straining my neck. Pealing black pitted paint, rust running down the sides where the paint had once been, all set my young tiny heart thumping as I stood transfixed to the spot not able to move watching this spectacle. As it slowly passed into the inner harbour I looked up to see it was laden to a very precarious height with timber, lots and lots and lots of timber. That smell to this day of wet wood invokes memories of that day when I watched my Grandfather’s timber boat docking in Ramsgate harbour.
Boats, now I loved the boats, the big long barges that sometimes stretched from one side to the other with their big brown sails flapping in the breeze as they unloaded their cargo of all manner of merchandise. I’d sit right on the edge of the quay, my legs dangling over the side with no fear of the drop in front of me, watching big gruff looking individuals wearing sweaters with holes in where there shouldn’t have been holes, pants held up with huge leather belts and buckles, beards that sometimes were platted like my elder sisters hair, but no ribbons though, just a piece of string. I knew each one of them by name, the names I of course had given them, there was ‘Blackbeard’ the most fearsome of them all I remember. A huge man dwarfing his rigging, his skin was the same colour as his trousers and he always wore big black boots that he tucked those pants into, effortlessly lifting sacks piled up on his barge and throwing them onto the quay as if they were full of feathers.
The waterfront from as early as five years old was my playground, I think because I felt safe, my Dad worked on the slipway as far back as I can remember, he would take me to work with him on the crossbar of his big black bicycle most summer days and I would help him eat his sandwiches, or whatever Mum had made up for him in his lunch box at dinner time. It didn’t seem to matter what was in between the two slices of bread, it was what my Dad was eating. I can see that lunch box now being held out to me, my hands like dads were black from my escapades of the morning, probably from watching the coal being unloaded and picking up chunks that had dropped on the quay from the crane bucket. So I, like him, would eat it without a murmur. Everyone knew me round the inner harbour as ‘Harry’s boy’ and no doubt kept an eye on me for him. I felt safe in their world, imagine that today if you can, I would without doubt end up in care, my parents being accused of all manner of charges. But what a wonderful childhood I had. Those early years to me hold magical memories. The characters on the London barges, the different activities along Military road that I would sit and watch with keen interest, boat builders with their fine carpentry, chandlers and grain merchants. They all would include me as I sat on an upturned box and watched them working, chattering away to me as if I was one of them. What a start to my young life amongst all the activity going on around me. I was never ill, never had a cold, the only thing I remember suffering from was Mum’s scrubbing brush trying to get the little urchin that stood in her kitchen clean when I arrived home, happy, dirty, and starving from all the fresh air in my lungs. Dad would wink at me as she pulled off all, or most of my cloths to get to the grime, tutting and complaining about the state I was in. At the end of it all she would sit me on her knee wrapping a massive towel round me and I would invariably fall asleep in her arms as the smell of lavender wafted up from her pinafore, content, safe in her obvious affection, all from the exciting world I was exploring and discovering around me.