And things that go bump in the night!
Posted by philwhiteland on Thu, 19 Oct 2017
As the nights draw in and we reach the end of October, we will once again be able to enjoy that newly-imported pastime of ‘trick or treat’ which, at any other time of the year, would be more accurately termed ‘demanding money with menaces’.
I know this instantly brands me as an old curmudgeon, desperately out of touch with the times, but I think it’s a shame that we seem to have embraced the U.S. version of Hallowe’en, with its practical jokes, slapstick horror and fancy dress, in place of the U.K. version that I remember which was much more subtle and considerably more sinister.
Hallowe’en, in my childhood, was not something to celebrate so much as to endure. It was a time, we were told, when witches were abroad (well, the price of package holidays had come down a lot) and the long, dark, autumn night could easily hide “ghoulies and ghosties and long-legged beasties”. Autumn in the 1950s and early 1960s was not so much a “season of mists and mellow fruitfulness” as a season of swirling fogs and choking yellow smogs. When we wax lyrical about the ‘good old days’ we tend to forget just how much certain things have improved and the effect of the Clean Air Act on the atmosphere must certainly rank pretty high on the list of improvements. The point is that, in those swirling fogs and smogs, it was very easy to conjure up (in the fevered imagination of childhood) sinister beings that lurked just out of sight but never out of mind.
I must admit that I had a fairly active imagination as a child and, being of a rather nervous disposition, could easily conjure up ‘nameless dreads’ lurking in every corner. In a previous article (“When I was a child, I thought like a child…”. Steady Past Your Granny’s, Doveridge Publications, 2005) I referred to an odd idea that I developed, after watching some silly cartoon, in which I came to the conclusion that there was some awful nemesis lurking in our upstairs toilet and that, only by getting downstairs before the toilet had finished flushing could I be truly safe. This wouldn’t have been too much of a problem had I been able to navigate the stairs in the usual manner but, due to my pathological fear of heights, I was reduced to coming down stairs one step at a time on my bottom. Trying to do this in a blind panic merely replicates the Cresta Run and puts considerable doubt on your future parenting abilities. As I said in the article, “It’s funny how, as a child, you never share these nameless dreads with your parents. Somehow you and this mystical fear are in cahoots against the adult world”. Maybe this is less so these days, where children are encouraged to be open and talk through any problems (and rightly so). When I was growing up, the stiff upper lip was the order of the day and any fears and trepidations were to be rammed down deep into the subconscious along with any other odd ideas that the juvenile mind might generate.
As an example of the extent of my impressionability in those days, we were due to go on holiday toCornwall, a place that my mum and her sister (my Auntie Vera) had been to a number of times before and really loved. Auntie Vera had a number of mementoes from her previous visits around the house; brass Cornish piskies, a brass depiction of the Widdecombe Fair story (“Tom Pearce, Tom Pearce lend me your grey mare” etc.) and a collection of Folk Tales from Devon and Cornwall. I was a voracious reader and ploughed my way through these tales, whilst all the time taking in the brass images of sly, sharp-featured, elfin creatures who could trick you just as easily as bring you good luck (now largely found in the House of Commons) as well as the image of a skeletal horse being ridden by an unfeasible amount of drunken men (yep, House of Commons again). Now old folk tales (by which I mean ancient fairy tales, not tales about old folk) were designed to be scary rather than whimsical (the Brothers Grimm weren’t called that for nothing you know) and this, combined with my active imagination, meant that I approached the holiday with more than a degree of trepidation.
On the way down we made one of our frequent stops (we had a hired Ford Prefect that used oil in the ratio of 1 pint to every 2 gallons of petrol – we might as well have had a two-stroke!) at Jamaica Inn on Bodmin Moor. With tales of piskies, ghosts and smugglers swirling around my mind, I spent the whole time there clutching the wooden bench as hard as I could, sure in my own mind that if I wasn’t spirited away by the supernatural (and being grabbed by the ghoulies is not to be recommended – sorry, it all went a bit “Two Ronnies” there for a moment) then I was sure to be bludgeoned by rough men carrying sacks or barrels because I had failed to “watch the wall, my darling, while the gentlemen go by” (Kipling, “A Smugglers Song”). As adults, we pride ourselves on having a clear divide between that which is real and that which is imaginary. What we forget is how tenuous that divide is in the childhood mind.
Although I thoroughly enjoyed my holiday and still recall it with fondness, I could never quite shake the conviction that something slightly unsettling lurked under every stone bridge or at the bottom of every wishing well. I have been back to Cornwall many times since and have to say that the only unsettling things I’ve encountered have tended to be Cornish Pasties rather than Cornish Piskies.
Encounters with the paranormal in my childhood were mercifully restricted to works of fiction and my imagination… except on two occasions.
When I was 10 we moved into a pub. It had been long-held ambition of my Dad’s to run his own pub and this was his big chance. Although I had seen the pub’s public areas on a number of occasions (usually being parked in a corner of the passage with a bottle of pop and packet of crisps), I had never seen ‘behind the scenes’ as it were and it came as a bit of a shock. I remember that I left our house in Anglesey Road, where I had spent my entire life until then, in the morning to go to school. Spent most of the morning at the Little Theatre in Guild Street listening to a children’s author (Henry Treece) talking about his books, and then caught the No. 12 bus back to Anglesey Road at lunch time, and for the first time, walked into the kitchen of the New Talbot Hotel. Whereas before, when I came home, Mum would be waiting for me with my lunch at the ready, on this occasion I walked into pandemonium. Mum and my Nana were in the kitchen frantically buttering (well, marging actually, if that’s a proper word) cobs and sandwiches for the lunchtime clientele whilst my Dad was the other side of the living room’s frosted glass door into the bar, getting the hang of the pumps and till whilst trying to serve a room full of inquisitive customers (nothing quite like a change of management to ginger up trade).
However, the shock was not just that I had walked into a totally alien environment. There was also the not inconsiderable question of the domestic fixtures and fittings, which made it seem as if I had somehow jumped through a time-warp into the 19th Century. The sink in the kitchen was a huge, ceramic Belfast sink (which would be quite fashionable now) and, to one side of it, was a cobweb covered green and red hand-operated water pump (I think it might be called a pitcher pump?). In the living room, a roaring fire was contained in a large, black-leaded range that featured an oven to one side, hooks for hanging various implements, and a trivet for boiling your kettle (which I later discovered was absolutely brilliant for roasting chestnuts). If Mr. Bumble the Beadle (and I don’t mean Jeremy) from Oliver Twist had strode in and asked why I wanted more, I wouldn’t have been a bit surprised.
That night, I tried to settle down to sleep but things did seem rather strange. My few pieces of bedroom furniture, which had filled my small bedroom back at our previous house, were now cast to the four corners of my new vast bedroom in the pub. But what really preyed on my mind was that we now had an attic. Well, rather more than an attic really.
The New Talbot Hotel had been a true hotel decades before we took over and, as such, it featured what had been 6 guest bedrooms on the third floor of the building. These were accessed by means of a further flight of stairs that ran up to the third floor from the end of the landing on the second floor, just by the bathroom and opposite the door to the clubroom (of which more in a future article). These stairs, like much of the upstairs flooring, were linoleum covered and were separated from the rest of the pub by a latched gate. Nobody had used the rooms for years and they were mostly empty apart from one or two which were used for storage. Therefore it was somewhat surprising that, as I lay in my bed trying to get to sleep, with the sounds of merriment from the bar below me ringing in my ears, I could distinctly hear the steady footsteps of someone moving around in the bedrooms above and the tap, tap, tap of claws on linoleum as what I took to be a dog made its way down the stairs from the attic. Naturally, I did what any intrepid child of 10 would do in those days – I hid under the bedclothes and hoped it would all go away (it’s not much of a strategy but it’s served me well over the years).
For the next two and a half years, the footsteps marching around the rooms above and the tap, tap, tap of the non-existent dog’s footsteps down the stairs, became a regular feature of my night-time pre-sleep routine. After a while, I came to the conclusion that, whatever was going on up there clearly wasn’t going to interfere with me down below and I became rather nonchalant about it all. Having said that, no power on this earth would have got me up in those attics after dark, either then or now. The strange thing is that I never mentioned any of this to my parents at the time or for years afterwards and I don’t recall mentioning it to my friends either. When I did tell my parents, many years later, they were shocked to learn that I had endured this nightly experience without ever confiding in them. As I said earlier, it seems that children and nameless dreads are often locked in some sort of conspiracy against the adult world.
Now, of course, it is entirely up to you as to whether you believe the above or not. You may say that there was a perfectly rational explanation for it all, and I would have to agree that there may well be. You may say it was just the product of an overactive childhood imagination, and I would agree that you might think that, but I can assure you that it wasn’t.
And my second encounter with the paranormal? Ah well, if you found it hard to believe the story above, you would really struggle with the other tale. Let’s leave it as another story for another day…for now.
The sequel to this story can be found in the new book, 'The Things You See...' due out on 31st October, 2017