Then and now.

It was getting close to that time of year, when thoughts turned to burning some poor sod at the stake. Or to be more precise, an effigy burned as a substitute. My friends came round wondering if I’d like to join them collecting wood for the bonfire. I would need something to cut it with. So I went out the back to the coal shed and picked up the axe that was used for cutting our domestic kindling. Then our little gang set off down the local lanes in search of suitable materials.

We eventually arrived at a road embankment that rose up at either side of the lane to a railway bridge. It was decided that this was the place to harvest our fuel. We all spread out over what seemed to be quite a steep slope. I climbed to the top and selected what I felt was the biggest tree I could manage and started to hack away at it. Very quickly I learned that chopping down a tree was not as easy as it looked. However, after several little rest stops it reluctantly keeled over, only to get caught up in the branches of the trees surrounding it. I’d assumed that this giant would come crashing down to the ground like they did on TV. Anyway, after some considerable struggle, I managed to wrestle the thing down the bank and onto the lane. I then simply had to get my prize home.

If I’d thought getting there was a long walk, then I was about to learn another lesson the hard way; that getting this thing home was going to be no picnic. I hadn’t realised that trees could be so heavy. I dragged and pulled the thing for nearly two miles, still clutching the axe. I still remember that I found the sound of the leaves and twigs, as they scraped the ground, quite satisfying. I eventually got it home and, with a great sense of achievement, heaved it onto the bonfire.

So how old was I you might wonder, sixteen, seventeen? Well, I worked it out. I had to have been in the region of five to six years old! Because when I was seven years old I became ill with Rheumatic fever, and by that time we were living in a different place. I have to confess to being a little gobsmacked at this realisation. In particular by the difference in social attitudes to very young children. These days, if a child of five or six was spotted walking along with an axe in their hand, people would be contacting the police and social services.

It got me thinking about all the other things we used to get up to as children; of the level of freedom that we had back then. In my very early teen years, I was given a chemistry set as a Xmas present, but found I quickly became bored with the limits of the contents of the box. So I took myself off to the local library and flipped my way through a couple of books on chemistry. Then a trip to a couple of local pharmacist shops to buy some ingredients. Took them home and managed to mix up some pretty passable gunpowder. I became fascinated with anything I could make that would smoke,smell, burst into flames or go off with a bang. I was a budding terrorist in the making. And all of this was allowed. I whittled with knives, made bows and arrows and spears; even, at one point, buying a kit from an advert in the Exchange and Mart and building a crossbow. Oh, and I ought to mention the six foot Blowpipe I made that could drive a steel dart into a block of wood so firmly, it required a pair of pliers to remove it. And most of all this before I was seventeen.

One would think that my parents might be a little concerned that their eldest boy had such lethal obsessions. But no, not a bit. My mother even happy to indulge my request for a copy of the original Bowie Knife; the thing had a ten inch blade for god’s sake!

Some of the games we played back then would have given a modern health and safety officer a seizure. These ranged from Eivel Knievel type stunts on bicycles, to throwing sharp implements at each other’s extremities to see how close we could get without hitting them. It seemed like anything that risked life and limb was fair game.

Oh, and in case you were wondering; the tree had to have been all of 6 centimetres in diameter. But still, pretty big to a 6 year old.

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