|Home sweet home - only surviving photo of the chicken hut|
Growing up in the heart of East Yorkshire, I knew dire, unyielding poverty. Though my father was the village schoolmaster, he was saddled by endless debt - something to do with the gambling addiction he had developed during the second world war.
We lived in a wooden chicken hut down by the canal - Mum, Dad, my three brothers and I. There was no electricity or running water and if we needed the toilet we had to nip over to the reeds by the canal. Of course food was always a problem. Sometimes we found duck and swan eggs in nests amidst the reeds and at harvest time we could be seen gathering individual corn seeds from fields that had been just mown by combine harvesters. At potato picking time, the whole family would be out from dawn to dusk. It was back-breaking work but we could filch enough potatoes to see us through the winter.
At Christmastime, the village butcher - Tommy Lofthouse - always took pity on us and would send us a whole pig's head which Mum would roast over a blazing Yule log.
I got my first pair of shoes when I was eleven. They'd been left behind after the church jumble sale which is where we got most of our clothes from. Those first shoes were hob-nailed and the worn-out soles flapped freely. My younger brother - Simon - mostly wore hand-me-down gingham dresses and many villagers even thought he was a girl with his curly blonde locks.
Life was very hard in the chicken hut but we were used to it and quite content. On the coldest winter nights we huddled together shivering under the pile of old sacks that we called a bed. But one day the fearsome landowner - Sir Xavier H. Brague came to evict us - driving us off his land with much cursing and threats of extreme violence. Then we had to move to a kennel in the grounds of the old rectory. Corpulent Canon W. Crow-Magnon who lived alone in that imposing ten bedroom Victorian mansion took pity on us and made Rufus - his Alsatian guard dog - come and sleep by his roaring fireside. Sometimes at night we crept up to the French windows and watched as Canon Crow-Magnon necked whole bottles of ruby port or French cognac while listening to Gilbert and Sullivan records on his gramophone. It looked so lovely and warm in there as we stood outside, our teeth chattering like old typewriter keys.
It was very cramped in Rufus's kennel but cosy. We mostly ate the Canon's vegetable peelings and worms from his compost bins. Yes my friends, we really knew what poverty meant back then. We were so poor that we begged from the gipsies and tramps who sometimes wandered those rural byways and fortunately they tended to take pity on us. You may have heard the expression, "as poor as church mice" - well we were considerably poorer than that, I can tell you!
By the way, have you known poverty yourself? Pray tell.