Like everyone else, it is often difficult for me to know whether or not a childhood memory is genuine. The problem is that some of my ‘memories’ are based on events lifted from family photos or stories rather than on first-hand experience. This blog, however, is about a memory I know to be real; after all, my parents weren’t there to report what happened, there were no photos to prompt me later and certainly no one else who could know what went through my mind. It is also about one of the most persistent of my memories and the current coronavirus lockdown has given me time to explore it again in detail. I made an earlier exploration some fifteen years ago and although it helped, important unknowns remained.
I would have been aged 3½ at the time and the memory is of a moment when I expressed, out loud, moral values that I would have been developing as a toddler. It was a moment when, for the first time, I stood up to someone and spoke my mind in an attempt to stop wrongdoing.
The incident took place when we were living in Liverpool just as the war was ending. According to a note made by my mother, one of my favourite people was the family gardener and my namesake – ‘Joey the garner man’. I loved being with him and would follow him around as he tended the beds or mowed the lawn. If I was lucky, I was even allowed to ‘help’. Joey also had an allotment just across the road from our house and going there with him was special. Just him and me alone with no parents nearby.
In that first, but ultimately incomplete exploration in 2005, my wife, Rohan and I visited my Liverpool home – Number 23, Eaton Road. By chance, we met the owner, a woman in her nineties who told us that she had actually bought the house from my parents, adding that she did not like my mother at all; she was both ‘demanding’ and ‘rude’! After a cup of tea, we walked round the garden and then went the 100 metres down the road to the River Mersey where we leaned over the metal fence on its bank.
Back to the present enquiry in which I hoped to discover more about the allotment. Through internet searches I found a map showing a Garden Centre close to where Joey’s allotment would have been – might its proprietor know more? When I phoned and explained that I was chasing up a childhood memory, a woman who introduced herself as Dee, very politely told me that the number I had phoned was not that of a Garden Centre but of a Garden Designer – with whom I happened to be speaking. Moreover, she would be happy to help if she could.
We exchanged phone calls, texts and emails, and the breakthrough came when she sent me a series of detailed street maps showing the area from the 1920s onwards. I could now imagine myself back there as a child. It was clear that Joey’s allotment was on an empty building plot which, at the time, would have been commandeered for growing vegetables. Interestingly, the most recent map shows that this plot still remains unbuilt.
With all this, I felt more confident than ever of my memory. On that day in 1945, Joey and I walked across the road and entered his allotment through a tall door in a slatted wooden fence. Once inside, as he worked he slowly filled his wheelbarrow with garden rubbish. When it was time to leave, rather than take me home, together we wheeled his barrow down the road to the river. As we walked he told me his plan – he was going to tip the rubbish through the gaps in the metal fence and into the water.
I had often been to that stretch of the Esplanade and knew that the notice attached to the railing where we stood said in big letters ‘Do not tip rubbish into the river – by order!’ How could Joey think to disobey?
I remonstrated with him but to no effect and watched as this adult, my hero, tipped his rubbish illegally into the water, an act which I saw as so wrong. Feeling totally let down, indeed shocked, I decided that, if he could behave like that I should never be with him or speak to him again – and I never did. On a matter of principle I had made my first stand, and the memory of that decision, of that confrontation, has remained with me ever since. In so many ways, the position I adopted has shaped my life.
The illustration is a photo of me at around five years old, so a little older than in the story.
For helping me write this blog, I would like to thank Dee, Mark, Sarah, Vanessa, Rohan and Vivien.