Recently I introduced the late Eric Yates and his marvelous book:
By ERIC YATES
Today I am pleased to present my review of the book (and further down an excerpt)
This is truly a charming and enlightening book. Writen with warmth and wonderful humour it depicts the World War 2 war-time childhood of two brothers.
After an introduction to the family history we are taken into episodes about said childhood. Eric and John grow up in difficult times. The chapters demonstrate the manifold aspects of life in war-time Britain, hardships, daily routines and the impact the war had on regular families.
From rationing and supply issues to child evacuations – the book covers a wide range of topics and is not just a good read but a valuable source of information for historians. Beyond that claim, it is also a very entertaining and well written book that I would highly recommend.
I wish more books like this one existed to keep the great stories, small or big, alive for posterity. This selection is a true find.
Check out the Book on the Amazon.co.uk book website, where the reviews are very enthusiastic.
EXCERPT FROM EPITAPH TO ‘NICKLE ECK’
Chapter 2 ‘Unholy Smoke!’
…. At home we inspected an old Pears’ Encyclopaedia and struck gold. Saltpetre was the essential ingredient for fireworks, fattened out with charcoal and sugar to make pretty fizzes and crackles.
We were ecstatic and pooled our meagre pennies to purchase the necessary saltpetre and charcoal from an old-fashioned dry-goods merchant in Yardley, where we did odd jobs on Saturday mornings. John then sent me into the chemist to buy sulphur ‘as a secret ingredient’. Sulphur was then readily available and I was dispatched to make the purchase because of my innocent demeanour.
“Who would ever suspect you of making explosives?” asked John, rhetorically.
The Chemist looked at me benignly and leaned over the counter.
“And what do you want sulphur for little man?” he purred.
“Please Sir,” I piped, suitably primed by John, “it’s for soaking my dad’s feet.”
“Right you are young sir,” the Chemist chuckled in a Dickensian manner, handing over the powder.
I rejoined John and we streaked off, intent on our preparation for war. We carefully mixed the ingredients in one of Mom’s orange-coloured crock bowls with a wooden spoon (John suggested using a Runcible spoon but we didn’t have one) and added a few match heads as detonators.
“Now, we pondered, what can we use as a casing?” John’s ingenuity quickly galloped to the rescue.
“Nuts and bolts!” he shouted, and then added, “big ones, from the shelters.”
He quickly explained that we would use two bolts, screwed either side of a large nut, and that our mixture would be poured into the space between the two. The nuts and bolts holding Anderson air-raid shelters together were huge and ‘just-the-job’.
“But how are we going to get these nuts and bolts?” I foolishly enquired. John glared at me.
“Granite Swede,” he snarled.
John never swore, but his colourful Arabic-type epithets were much admired. I thought he was being complimentary which he was, sometimes (about as frequently as the appearance of Haley’s Comet). Apparently, ‘Granite Swede’ didn’t mean a hard man from Scandinavia, but a thick-head from Dalston Road.
“You go and find a shelter in the garden of a house that’s been evacuated or bombed out,” he said, handing me an enormous spanner which came with our shelter kit, “and be quiet when you get back.”
“Nobody notices you,” he added with a final salvo.
“What a leader,” I thought, as I crept off, carrying my conspicuous giant spanner over my shoulder. “Hi ho, hi ho, it’s off to work I go,” I whistled, to fortify my wispy courage. I could have done with the comforting presence of six more dwarves, but no such luck.
I found a suitable Anderson shelter and started to unscrew the bolts, which were galvanised and therefore not rusty. It was not easy to go unnoticed, sitting on top of a corrugated sunken hut unscrewing bolts, but my overworked guardian angel somehow blanked me out.
My task completed, I shouldered the nuts and bolts in an old sack and headed for home. The sack swung from side to side, so I had to sway the opposite way to maintain equilibrium and I needed both hands to hold it. The long spanner was thrust down my shorts, causing me much pre-pubescent pain. Thus, I oscillated back home and dropped the swag at John’s feet. I think he was surprised to see me again, as my approach was not, as planned, inconspicuous. However, the hardware was acceptable and we constructed the missiles.
John turned the nuts a few threads down on to the bolts and I carefully filled the resulting space with our mixture. He then gingerly screwed another bolt on top of each nut, and we were ready. We selected a flat concrete area in front of Dad’s garage and prepared to smash the bolts down. I meekly suggested that John should have the honour of the first go. John gazed at me in disdain; he knew a cowardly poltroon when he saw one. He strode forward and hurled a bolt down. Nothing happened; no explosion, no take-off – and no fizzles.
“No pressure,” said John, taking a spanner and handing one to me.
“We have to tighten the bolts on to the gunpowder.”
We increased the pressure by several more threads.
“Your turn,” said John.
I stepped forward, quickly went through the Lord’s Prayer, shut my eyes, and threw the firework down. Unfortunately I missed the flat surface and hit the slope in front of it.
A tremendous explosion ensued; the upper bolt took off and performed a perfect curve, arcing and spinning across the street and through the front bedroom window of the private house opposite. “That’s going to take some explaining,” I thought.
“Quick, fire the rest of them off,” hissed John.
“Why,” I asked timidly, but unhesitatingly complied and we mortared the surrounding area with satisfying exploding bolts.
“Fifth Columnists,” replied John and, noting that I was struggling with this concept, he added, “and land mines.”
I gave up and started to wonder who might come to my funeral.
“Fifth Columnists are like spies,” John went on, “they lie low and sabotage everything after the war, and detonate land mines long after they’ve been dropped.”
“Ah,” I said gravely, “but what about the other four?”
John shrivelled me with a look.
“Just shurrup and tell everyone you meet what I’ve said,” he instructed.
And so it was. I told everyone I met about Fifth Communists smashing windows and nobody queried my message. We were never identified as the culprits, although Mom suspected complicity and we got thumped anyway.
Check out the Book on the Amazon.co.uk book website, where the reviews are very enthusiastic.
Eric did two years’ National Service as an Army Education Officer in Cyprus, and seven years with the Kenyan Police in East Africa where, as a Customs & Excise Investigation Officer, he swam in shark-infested waters looking for hidden contraband. Whilst living in Africa, he joined the National Theatre of Nairobi where he performed in Shakespeare, the Classics and drama.
For almost 20 years he worked for Bass Charrington, controlling licensed premises throughout the Midlands, and also for Mitchells & Butlers in Birmingham, (U.K) during which time he was with the Hall Green Little Theatre and became a stalwart member of the Blossomfield Club in Solihull, where for many years he performed, directed and was co-writer of original musical comedies produced and performed there.
At one time a presenter for BBC Radio Birmingham, Eric spent ten years with the Monitoring Section of the BBC World Service in Berkshire, becoming well-known locally for his acting talent, especially mimicry and humour, winning numerous awards over the years.
Eric was married twice and met his second wife in Henley-on-Thames, when she directed him in J.B. Priestley’s When We Are Married. At that time he was semi-retired working as a warden at Windsor Castle, where he endeared himself to his colleagues but was often reprimanded for displaying his unique brand of humour to the general public.
Retiring to Devon in 2001, Eric enjoyed boat restoration, brewing very strong cider, cultivating rare trees and plants and reading. He began writing his stories in 2004 – and also began tales from his adult life, regrettably unfinished. He and his wife performed in Salcombe, where he is celebrated in the South Hams for his performance in the famous music hall sketch ‘Dinner for One’ (YouTube – Dinner for One, Eric).
His final memorable performance was at the 2011 Dartmouth Drama Festival, five months before he died, where he brought the house down in the two miming sketches from Michael Frayn’s Alarms & Excursions, directed by his wife. His expertise was as sharp as ever and, as always, he received tumultuous applause.
It is the late 1930’s and, despite his diminutive stature and humble demeanour, from a very young age little Eric (‘Nickle Eck’ to his family) is expected to earn his keep, beginning with the task of collecting and delivering beer for his Dad’s friend – but not before taking a swig and topping up the bottle with tap water – for which he is paid 6d.
‘Nickle Eck’ was accustomed to being surrounded by forests of bottled beer as a toddler, while his Mom played the piano and sang. Even then he returned the empties for 2d – but not before draining a few bottles first. He considered himself ‘the youngest alcoholic in Birmingham’.
From the age of four, Eric sticks doggedly to the side of John, his hero and elder brother by two years, obeying instructions carrying out John’s momentous ‘IDEAS’ which could lead him to suffering bruises, black eyes and similar injuries – even fearing an early death – as well as the inevitable thump on the head from Mom.
John is the instigator of questionable mischief and shenanigans with which the boys fill their days. From pyrotechnics, explosions and electrocutions to the strengthening of neck muscles, bread soup incidents and bob-sledging life is never dull, but the brothers are highly intelligent with great wit and enterprise. Their love of reading develops their minds and their humorous yet heart-stopping escapades often include characters and ideas taken from literature.
Eric and John are evacuated, quickly becoming the despair of billeting officers who move them from one home to another, leaving havoc in their wake. Following a fishing incident, when they inadvertently drain a canal causing serious flooding and find themselves in court, John assumes the mantle of Defending Counsel, thoroughly enjoying this role and confident that his cunning idea to prove their innocence will deflect punishment – which it does, the case being dismissed. However, the brothers are then separated for the first time in their young lives.
Although devastated without John to protect him, Eric stoically does his best to stave off the teasing and brutality of other evacuees and, admittedly terror-struck, uses his inborn talent and humour to win round his tormentors who appoint him the gang’s jester – which is a role that Eric plays throughout his lifetime.