‘What did it matter if there were a few blisters on the fingers and sparks in the eyes, it was all part of the fun and frolic’
Much of Walter’s memoirs focus upon his working life, prior to The Great War and during it. However, Walter does not forget to introduce us to the fun and festivities of the village and of his personal life.
Village life was an important part of Walter’s life, so it is no surprise that he talks about festivities the village enjoyed in his memoirs. An event that appears to have been of importance to the village, whereby ‘practically all of the villagers turned out to witness the celebrations’ (38) was Bonfire Night. Walter tells the reader how ‘the villagers [would bring] out all of their discarded lumber, broken tables, chairs, anything that would burn’. We are also told how Walter himself would get involved, he says that he ‘sometimes had a hand in stuffing straw into a sack for the [guys] body’ (38). Therefore, as well as witnessing the celebrations, through Walter’s memoirs the reader is given an understanding of how involved the villagers got in contributing to the build-up of the event.
Following this, Walter describes the events of Bonfire Night. The reader is told how ‘the torch light procession, headed by the band paraded round about the village, calling at the big houses, to play a few selections, not forgetting Elliott’s shop, at each stop repeating the old rhyme’ (38). Once this ritual had taken place and the bonfire was lit, Walter goes on to say how ‘Elliott’s fireballs were lit’. These he says ‘were made of old socks…soaked in paraffin’ (38). Walter even recalls how he had ‘seen [his] Pa flinging these fireballs about with naked hands and as soon as they landed other brave chaps would fling them up again’ (38). This, for most readers would be a huge contrast to the bonfire nights we know and experience today, whereby public bonfires are subject to strict health and safety measures! However, Walter continues by saying ‘What did it matter if there were a few blisters on the fingers and sparks in the eyes, it was all part of the fun and frolic’ (38). The reader is therefore given an understanding of a time that was far more easy going and carefree with their celebrations.
Alongside the recollection of village festivities, Walter also discusses what he did in his leisure time, and where he found his own fun when he was a young adult. Brad Beaven suggested that ‘class continued as a principal determinant in the nature of working-class leisure between 1850 and 1945’ (237). This was often because most working-class people, in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, had little free time for leisure activities. Walter found himself in this majority, in that he too had little free time to indulge in hobbies and leisurely activities. He says how ‘other than Sundays we only got two whole days’ holiday, Christmas day and good Friday’ (33). With his free time though Walter describes how he would often go fishing. He speaks of how he and a friend could borrow a boat ‘at Cooden…providing [they] went 2 miles out to sea and empty…whelk pots, then take the whelks up to Denbeigh’ (33). Although this meant working in their free time, it was clearly something they were happy to do as the pair would fish ‘for about 2 hours catching mostly whiting’ before pulling up whelks’ (33). When discussing their fishing trips though Walter says that they ‘could row alright but were taking a bit of a risk when [they] went out alone as neither of [them] could swim’ (33). This I thought was significant as it demonstrates more of an adventurous side to Walter, one that we had not previously seen in his memoirs. From this I feel it is fair to say that Walter was somebody who enjoyed to take a few risks in life.
In his memoirs, Walter also talks about his interest in birds. He describes how he ‘saved up fifteen shillings’ (34) to buy his first canary. Buying his first bird though lead Walter to buy another, and he found himself breeding them. He says how he ‘couldn’t do anything wrong so as numbers increased [he] partitioned off part of the store room over the shop and turned it into [his] bird room’ (34). This was only the beginning for Walter’s enjoyment of birds though. He decided that goldfinches ‘had such a lovely song so of course [he] wanted’ (34) one. Walter even admits that he ‘often got up at daybreak to go bird catching’ (35). However, ‘goldfinches…were protected by law so were not allowed to be caught’ (35) so when he went out he would put the ‘nets in long canvas bags to make it look as though [he] had been fishing’ (35). The idea of Walter being more of an adventurous type is therefore heightened, and readers become aware of just how much his hobbies and enjoyment of birds filled up Walter’s spare time. After buying his first canary Walter went on to have ‘about 40 birds’ (35) and joined the Hastings Bird Club, where he ‘spent many happy hours on Wednesday evenings at the Royal Oak Hotel Hastings where the meetings were held’ (36).
Through Walter’s recollection of the fun and festivities in his life and in the village, the reader is far more aware of the stark contrast between our lives today and the experiences of those in the late 19th century and early 20th century. Walter’s recollection of his leisurely activities also provides the reader with a more rounded picture of his character. This is because we begin to see sides to Walter that are not and cannot be demonstrated through his work and home life.
Beaven, Brad. ‘Leisure, Citizenship and working -class men in Britain, 1850-1945’. Manchester: Manchester University Press. 2005
Elliott, Walter J.E. ‘Untitled’, Burnett Archive of Working Class Autobiographies, University of Brunel Library, Special Collection, 1:227, available at: http//bura.brunel.ac.uk/handle/2438/9520
Walter J.E Elliott in John Burnett, David Vincent and David Mayall (eds) The Autobiography of the Working Class: An Annotated, Critical Bibliography 1790-1945, 3 vols. (Brighton: Harvester, 1984, 1987, 1989): 1:227
Image 1: http://controversialdocumentaries.blogspot.co.uk/2014/08/a-false-flag-aftermath-of-guy-fawkes.html
Image 2: http://www.geograph.org.uk/photo/2102579
Image 3: http://richardpollard.co.uk/hastings-st-leonards-in-old-pictures-coming-soon/