Monday, 7 September 2015

Stories of balaclavas and adventures .......... out on the edges Peckham and New Cross

Now if you have never read The Balaclava Story, and the Christmas Party by George Layton then it’s time to do so.*

They are set in the north of England in the post war period and chronicle the all too funny and at times sad escapades of Norman and his school mates.

I first read them soon after they were published in 1975 and instantly saw a connection with my own childhood in south east London.

I identified then and still do with Norman and the opening lines of The Balaclava Story ..............

“Tony and Barry both had one.  I reckon half the kids in our class had one.  But I didn’t.  My mum wouldn’t even listen to me.

‘You’re not having a balaclava!  What do you want a balaclava for in the middle of summer?’

I must’ve told her about ten times why I wanted a balaclava.

‘I want one so’s I can join the Balaclava Boys ....’

‘Go and wash your hands for tea, and don’t be so silly.’ She turned away from me to lay the table, so I put the curse of the middle finger on her.  This was pointing both of your middle fingers at somebody when they weren’t looking.”*

And many of us growing up in the late 1940s into the 50s will have had similar experiences, although in my case I did get the balaclava.

In fact I pretty much got one every year from when I was four till vanity and the teenage years banished them to the back of the wardrobe.

They were essential wear not only because they kept you warm but once the thing was on you could be Ivanhoe, Lancelot or the good knight who occasionally featured in Robin Hood.

That said sometimes the pattern or mother’s knitting did not deliver which usually meant they were tight to put on or just too loose.

Of the two I could put up with the struggle of pulling it over your head but the loose ones tended to mean that they sagged exposing your chin and made you look daft.

Mine were usually grey or brown wool and because the mail hoods worn by a knight were a metallic colour then grey was always the preferred choice, but never underestimate a mother’s quest for value and quality over historical accuracy.

But at a pinch even a brown one would pass muster on those cold Saturdays when you wandered off in search of adventure and a new park.

There were usually three of us although sometimes the lad that lived in one of the basement flats close to the fire station would join us.

Not that we ever called ourselves the Balaclava Boys, although I did once ask mother to help out with some badges which she did by cutting out round cardboard discs attached by cello tape to safety pins, but they never caught on I suspect because she chose to call us the “Slugs” and emblazoned them across each badge in different coloured ink.

Still the thought was there and unlike the tale of Norman’s balaclava there was a happy ending.

Pictures; cover from the Fib and other stories, George Layton and 'The balaclava helmet' Pattern for a balaclava helmet From Essentials for the Forces Jaeger Handknit 1940s With ear flaps to enable good hearing during telephone operations (or for use with a mobile phone). The Victoria & Albert Museum, circa 1940s,

*The Fib and other stories, The Balaclava Boys George Layton, 1975

** The Balaclava Story

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