Memoir 1 : The Life Jacket

A coat once saved my life.

Well, I say ‘saved my life’, but I can’t be certain that I would have died otherwise. But I wanted to grab your attention and it has more punch than ‘a coat once saved me from serious injury, or some nasty cuts and sprains at the very least (probably).’  We can never go back and prove the negative, so let’s go the whole hog and think of it in terms of prevention of death at a tender age.

How tender? To be honest (again) I can’t be totally sure because this was, at the time, just another of those scrapes that kids get into and swiftly forget due to no unpleasant repercussions. It was only well into adult years that I remembered what had happened and boggled at how lucky I was. But as I was probably only between seven and nine I just put it behind me and rarely thought about it again.

I grew up in a modern (Sixties) end terrace house, opposite a large secondary school and literally a stone’s throw from a field and the relatively open countryside that separates the northern tip of Coventry from the Warwickshire towns of Bedworth and Nuneaton. Just beyond the field was (and still is) a railway line that served Keresley colliery and the smokeless fuel plant next to it. Of course, we were expressly told to keep away from the railway and, of course, we made sure that our parents never found out that we ignored them. I never really cared that much for the frisson of excitement delivered by jumping on and off rolling stock (even when stationary, never mind when it was actually rolling), so by and large I stayed relatively clear of rail mishap. My avoidance was re-enforced when I heard that a school-friend of mine had lost a toe when a wagon went trundling over his over-sized and misplaced foot.

Keresley Colliery trains
Shunting wagons at Keresley Colliery & the Home Fire Plant. Source:

There were a few other attractions near the railway line such as ‘the Tip’ which was a weird bulge of lumpy land covered in straggly grasses and sickly saplings where we used to take our bikes and watch the teenagers on scramblers powering up and down well-worn tracks. Looking back now, it may well have been a half-arsed attempt at waste disposal covered over with earth and it certainly had a vaguely toxic feel as you’d often come across some strange plastic pot of oozing substance nestling amongst the weeds. There was also the ‘the black pond’ which was nearer to the colliery and was decorated with exciting signs warning of hidden depths and the dangers of drowning. I think it was full of some kind of liquid coal slurry, a pool of unnatural black, glossy in parts and matt around the edges where dust and pollen had settled on the thick surface. We used to lob large stones and bricks into it, fascinated by the way the viscous, oily liquid would be visibly penetrated with an apparent dent and then react by tossing a dark glob briefly skywards before settling back down with barely a ripple.

But to get to these delights the young scamps in our pleasant, modern cul-de-sac had to walk through two fields. The second was basically overgrown wasteland which was pretty much ignored by everyone except dogs and small den-building boys. Being bounded by trees on all sides it felt quite isolating and I was never totally at ease, especially when older boys were trying to light fires. Luckily, nothing ever got out of hand – British fields are generally a bit damp, but even if we did get a fire started we were so panicked that we tended to put it out again almost immediately.

The first field was four houses away from my home, at a turning area at the end of the road where it presented low chain-link wire fences either side of a large wooden gate that was absolutely perfect as a goal for our endless games of street football. For the visitor standing at the gate, the field was bounded less than ten metres away on the left by another wire fence to the school and a line of trees and hedges that stretched almost the entire hundred or so metres down to the bushy boundary that marked the beginning of the second field. Looking right, the field ran perhaps thirty metres down to a semi-hidden drainage channel and another line of trees separating the field from allotments where locals grew vegetables and planted sheds made of old front doors.

In my very early childhood the field was unused, a simple grassy meadow where we played football, threw Frisbees, invaded with Action Men and flew kites and model gliders. By the time I was nine or ten there were a couple of horses residing there and the teenaged girl who looked after them didn’t appreciate us setting foot in the field. Despite the fact that we quite liked the horses and would often pat and feed them when they came to the gate, we tended to keep well away from them if we were playing in the field and the feeling was obviously mutual, the horses preferring to move further down if we were kicking a ball at the gate end. On one such occasion the teenaged girl arrived, shouting and screaming at us to get out, that it was private property and so on. We grudgingly started to saunter back to the gate with the blonde-haired harridan striding towards us in her jodhpurs and riding hat and swishing her riding crop. We probably gave her some lip and deliberately tried her patience because, let’s face it, the field was part of our lives and she certainly didn’t live in our immediate neighbourhood. I remember that I was sat on the wooden gate, a leg either side, providing a real example of how she couldn’t order us to get off, when she hit my leg with her crop. The place erupted. ‘Little boy whipped by horsey girl for sitting on a fence!’ the headlines might have screamed. It didn’t make the press but my mates made a lot of noise and parents and neighbours got involved. It was probably just a tap and I don’t recall very much pain, but I confess I may have milked the situation slightly to highlight the oppression of the young common folk by the landed gentry. Or something. In any event, the horse-owners became less confrontational and we stayed even further away from the horses. But still went in the field, obviously.

One way we occupied ourselves in the field was by climbing the trees on the right, next to the allotments. We could quite easily slip over the rather dilapidated fence and go scrumping for apples from one of the nearer plots, mainly as a form of dangerous mission rather than because we actually wanted to eat them. They were horrible green miniature cooking apples with a bitter taste and the ability to suck moisture from your mouth. But we still bit into them anyway.

There were two trees that formed our base of operations for scrumping, both twisted, one more so than the other. The trunk of the most deformed tree was practically horizontal a few feet off the ground, enabling us to clamber along and then up into higher branches or across and over the fence into the allotments. I suppose it’s worth pointing out at this stage that the fields and the allotments, the home fire plant, the colliery and the tip are now all gone, redeveloped into a high-tech industrial park and new houses (this has at least given me the opportunity to say to my own kids in my best northern grandfather voice, “I remember when all this were fields”). But, astonishingly enough, while I was poking around on Google Street View at my old stomping ground, I spotted the two twisted trees. The housing developer left some of them in place to make the area feel more rural and established and these two somehow survived. I’m pretty sure that they must be the trees from my childhood because what idiot plants a decorative tree and lets it grow like some kind of lazy arboreal freak that can’t be arsed to stand up straight? And it was between these two warped wooden wonders that, back in the Seventies, I accomplished a tree-climbing first: I went up one tree, clambered across some branches and came down the other. Before that, every tree-climbing escapade had involved just one tree at a time. I had set my sights higher, spotted an opportunity, challenged nature and won. That’s an awesome feeling for a forty-something, never mind an eight year old.

Two twisted survivors
“I can remember when all this were fields”. Source: Google Street View

So, the elements of my story are coming together: a happy childhood spent exploring the local environment and an eye for a challenge. I was, if I say so myself, pretty good at climbing and further down the field there were a couple of trees that raised the difficulty level above the simple task of scampering about in the branches of my existing conquests. It’s at this point that I have to confess to having a fairly limited knowledge of types of tree. I don’t think any of the trees around the field were oaks or pines, but the only one I’m reasonably certain of is the tallest tree in the field, mainly because there’s an almost identical sycamore near to where I work. I could climb a little way up this giant but the distance between some of the key branches was too great for a little kid and although I liked a challenge, this was out of my league. The tree next to it, however, was definitely a candidate for climbing.

Footie in the field
The tree that I decided to climb. Source: Screen grab from a laptop playing a DVD copy of a VHS recording of a cine film taken by my dad in 1982.

It was most likely a cool late summer’s day because I have a distinct memory of a lot of greenery, but was wearing my coat rather than just a t-shirt or jumper. I probably wore some ghastly mid-70s jeans or trousers and a pair of pumps or trainers. My coat was zipped all the way up which again points to a typically disappointing English August. I wish I could remember a little more about it, but there are very few photos of me wearing coats at this age so I shall have to stick to what I remember which is that it was probably a kind of golden colour, had pockets on either side and a hood, pushed onto my back to allow me to look up at my chosen target tree. It was a little smaller than the sycamore but had some fantastic branches low down that gave access to the rest of the boughs. I was with my friend, Malcolm, a lad who was from several doors further down and who was also in my class at school. Although we knocked around together a fair bit he occasionally opted to play the role of my nemesis: when we were about four or five he deliberately pushed me into a huge bank of nettles (or ‘stingers’ as we called them). I was wearing t-shirt and shorts at the time. Most of my visible skin was covered in nettle rash. My mum had words with his mum (one of many instances). Even though his misanthropy receded as he got older he could still be a bit of a tit. Our relationship definitely improved when, following a piece of his excessive arsery whilst playing football, I knocked him to the floor in an uncharacteristic rage and eventually managed to smack him in the mouth until he bled. His mum had words with my mum. My mum gloated. The head teacher of our school got involved to make sure there wasn’t some kind of poisonous feud developing, but we both smiled happily at him and assured him we were both fine; the friendship equilibrium had been re-set, even if it was a particularly violent reboot.

But that was a year or two off. In the meantime, we were climbing. I felt that I was in my element; me against nature, the gentle sway of the branches, the rustle of the canopy above me. I wondered how high I could go. I’d had this same focus on achieving a difficult climbing goal before (see above, re stepping from one tree to another) but also when I was a few years younger at school. Our PE lessons were held in our school hall and we’d often have ‘The Apparatus’ unfolded from the wall for us to play on. There were climbing frames, balancing beams and a tall metal structure that held climbing ropes, a huge net of rigging and a rope ladder. And on the floor we had thin rubber mats to do basic gym moves on, like cartwheels and gambols. Even at the tender age of about six I had a cocky confidence in my ability to climb things and I set off up the scramble net. At the very top I swung my leg over the metal pole and reached for the rope ladder, with the aim of going up one way and coming down another (there’s a theme here, isn’t there?). My fingers brushed the ladder and it swung slightly away from my grasp and I was suddenly falling about twenty feet to the floor. My teacher apparently saw me and helped to break my fall but even then I had to spend a night in hospital while they monitored me for concussion.

You’d think I would have learned my lesson. I carried on climbing the tree. The branches were becoming thinner, bending as I pulled and stepped on to them despite my relative lack of body mass. Malcolm was somewhere below me and I relished the fact that I was clearly the better climber. I reached out for another branch…  and suddenly I was falling, feet first. I looked down and could see the shady, brown earth accelerating towards my legs; branches, twigs and leaves brushing past me as fell to my fate. I don’t think I even made a noise, let alone a scream of terror – I was too stunned; the likelihood of death / serious, painful injury / life in a wheelchair hadn’t yet had chance to process through my brain. The sum of my thoughts were along the lines of “Oh!! Bad!!!” – I clearly wasn’t the deep thinker I am today. The rapid descent lasted a dazzlingly brief amount of time; I think I was close to the top when I started but it’s always hard to judge your height when you’re in a tree, rather than looking at it from the outside. I was probably 20 to 30 feet off the ground. There were no teachers to break my fall, no rubber crash mats to protect my noggin.

With a spine-jarring jerk and a strangled exhaled yelp, I stopped. The zip of my coat was digging into my throat with a ferocity that felt like the first few metal teeth were trying to rip out my jugular. My arms were held out by a weird pressure in my armpits. I attempted to look down, risking a vicious zip nip on my lips. I appeared to be about three feet away from the base of the tree which was rooted on the bank of the dry drainage channel, which itself was around three feet deep. My toes pointed downwards, I tried to locate something I could stand on. They met nothing but fresh air. Still reeling at the rapid development of events, I tried to bring my hands to my neck to relieve the biting pain but the pressure under my armpits meant I could barely get my fingers between my coat and throat. It slowly dawned on me that, somehow, the hood of my coat had snagged an old snapped branch at the last possible moment before impact with the ground.

I tried to reach my hood, but couldn’t. I tried to undo the zip of my coat, but I’d had it a year or two and was a growing boy. It was a little snug on me before I went up the tree but now it was pulled tighter than a straight-jacket. I flailed helplessly. Malcolm appeared in my somewhat restricted field of view. “Get my dad!” I gargled at him. He looked a little shocked (as anyone does when they see their friend in ‘A Predicament’ that could mean ‘Trouble’) but scarpered off back towards the gate and help. My dad worked in a car factory through the week but tended to stay at home on Saturdays (working on friends’ cars) while my mum went shopping, so I knew he should be still in the house. I hoped he was still in the house. I adjusted my fingers that were pushed down the front of my neck and waited.

I’m not sure how long it took, but I could hear people approaching. Malcolm came into view and pointed in my direction. A second or two later my dad appeared, peering around the foliage and looking at me. The look turned into a laugh and quite possibly a sniggering guffaw as well. This wasn’t my idea of ‘help’. What I didn’t appreciate at the time was that what he saw was a small boy dangling by his hood, swaying gently a few feet above the ground as if he’d been hung up on a coat peg to keep him out of trouble. He reached up and unhooked me and swung me round to the grassy surface of the field. He may well have asked how I got into that situation, but I wasn’t going to confess to death-defying climbing stunts that went a bit wrong. I may have mumbled some kind of pathetic explanation as we trudged off home.

Years later, the full sequence of events hit me – I could have died! Or broke my spine! Or experienced excruciating pain! But, thanks to an old coat, its zip and – most crucially – its hood, all I suffered was surprise, discomfort and mild humiliation.

I know it’s a bit late but… Thanks, coat.

Me, summer 1973
Me aged five and what was probably my life-saving jacket. Summer 1973.

5 thoughts on “Memoir 1 : The Life Jacket

  1. Loved this story. It reminds me of all the insane things my brothers and I did in our immortal youths, often oblivious to the danger. In the 60’s, our parents kicked us out of the house in the morning and rang the bell at twilight. We had our bikes and freedom. It’s amazing we only went to the hospital a couple times a year.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yep, we got into various scrapes in the countryside, or the alleyways around the neighbourhood, or in the grounds of the large school opposite our house. We would often cycle miles from home before our 10th birthday. Not at all like the childhood of my kids!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Is this a way of subtly reinforcing key parental messages to children, ie “don’t go out without a coat”? I look forward to the next installment – “clean underwear saved my life!”

    Liked by 1 person

    1. You wouldn’t believe the difficulty I’ve had getting Natalie to wear a coat when she was younger. Perhaps I should’ve told her this story when she was 5 instead of waiting until she reached 16.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Hindsight’s a wonderful thing… re your memoir – I similarly remember tremendous freedom as a child – whole days spent exploring quarries and woods and hills, quite far from home. The geography of my hometown did enable some of that (Gloucester is a small city), but I can’t imagine my sons having, or even wanting, the same freedom

        Liked by 1 person

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