Mirth and Woe: The Curse of the Otherwise Law-Abiding Travelling Community
Ah, those long, blessed summer holidays at my Grandfather's house.
Two weeks of running around the concrete maze of Basildon New Town, trips to the seaside and generally having the time of my young life with my cousins.
Little did we know that the real reason for this break was to get us out of our parents' hair for a fortnight so they might restore some sanity into their lives without things blowing up, or my sister trying to claw my face off or drown me in the school swimming pool.
So, carted off to Laindon we went, for all the tomfoolery we could handle.
Over the road from Grandfather's house – on just about the only road in the area not to have been hastily thrown up in concrete at the arse-end of the 1960s – was an old bungalow housing an even older lady.
And as old ladies are wont to do, one day she turned up her toes and carked it TO DEATH. They carted her away in a hearse, and for some reason or another, the unattended house fell into disrepair.
Before long, the local Basildon scrotes were using it as an unofficial gang den, and they inevitably razed it to the ground in the finest house fire seen round the area for some years.
For a year or so, the land laid empty with nothing but the house's foundations and an increasingly overgrown garden of trees and plants, before permission was granted to build a kids' adventure playground. We thought it was excellent, heaven knows what the olds thought.
Inevitably, the Basildon scrotes set fire to the playground as well, and that was the end of that. For another year or so, the curs-ed land lay derelict, growing more and more overgrown.
When we visited the following summer, all the Basildon scrotes were gone, and we could cross the busy road (by a thoughtfully-provided footbridge, for we were sensibly brought-up children) to a paradise garden of trees and bushes, where we built a camp and had rollicking Famous Five adventures.
We climbed trees.
We fell out of trees.
We laughed like stupids when Andy fell out of a tree, leaving his trousers on a branch with a huge comedy R-i-i-i-p.
We had rollicking Famous Five adventures.
For one afternoon, as we were planning the downfall of the socialist Wilson government, we heard voices.
Dreadful, common voices.
"Chop it down, Bart. That'll make great firewood."
It was two scruffy looking types, almost certainly the kind that gives the otherwise law-abiding travelling community a bad name. You know: pikeys.
"Good Lord! Pikeys!" somebody said.
And it was true. A couple of blokes with large axes were setting about one of our trees with a view to snaffling it away to burn. They may or may not have been wearing unbuttoned waistcoats and neckerchiefs, depending on your view of stereotyping.
Well, we weren't going to stand for that.
"I say! You! Yes – you scruffy types! Stop chopping down that tree, or we'll report you."
"Absolutely. We'll tell on you, and you'll go to prison FOREVER."
"You an' whose army?"
And they were right. We were but five, aged between seven and eleven years old. They were two swarthy, unshaven types armed with large axes. I had in my possession a small, blunt penknife - ASBO-fodder these days, but too weedy to cut anything, let alone save us all from frenzied members of the traveller community who give their otherwise law-abiding brethren a bad name.
What could they do? Kill us TO DEATH? Give us a good talking to? We'd read enough Blyton to know that something worse awaited us: A life in the circus, minding the elephants.
We legged it.
In this sort of circumstance, we should have diced with death and run across the road, directly into Grandfather's house and safety. But we were not brought up that way. There was only one way to cross the road – by the footbridge. So we did.
Unfortunately, the callous tree thieves, of the type who give the otherwise law-abiding travelling community a bad name – and clearly not students of the Green Cross Code - waited for us at either end of the footbridge.
At this point in a Famous Five tale, there'd be a bit of a cliffhanger, before an essay on the dangers of socialism, gippos and darkies to law-abiding, middle-class white children, but I'll cut straight to the chase: we jumped.
Jumped. From the top of a footbridge, onto the grass below. There's a knack, you know. We'd been practicing, just in case we were cornered by a pair of frenzied members of the traveller community who give their otherwise law-abiding brethren a bad name.
We legged it into Grandfather's garden and hid amongst his prize-winning borders, and from the front of the house came the sound of the old man giving two unwanted visitors short shrift.
Alas, in all the excitement, my stomach had given short shrift to my lunch of jam sandwiches and lashings of ginger beer, and I honked into his rhubarb, which subsequently won a gold medal in that year's Laindon and District Horticultural Show.
And, in an outstanding piece of narrative continuity, I honked into the actual trophy on a subsequent Christmas visit. The Otherwise Law-Abiding Travelling Community Curse strikes again.