|Apr/May 2005 Book Reviews|
Bloomsbury (2005) 186 pages
ISBN: 0 7475 7333 6
We walked the length of the tramshed and into the yard. It held trams of every description, many decrepit and obviously out of use for a long time, but also there were ones like the picture in the advertisement.
"All these 'ere are two pounds." said Alf. "You can 'ave whichever you likes."
So Wilfred and his older brother Duncan bought a tram. How they came to do so, and all that happened to them after that, Wilfred relates—although, as he says, this is "a story which starts in a world now vanished."
In some ways, Wilfred's vanished world is the rosy world of childhood memory. In the 1920s and 1930s, Wilfred and Duncan grew up in a big house in Sussex, cycled the countryside, camped, hunted small animals, collected butterflies, and dreamed of owning a tram like the one they had seen advertised in the Daily Mail. But illness, family breakdown, and war changed all that.
Familiar as this scenario might seem, this is no commonplace story. Duncan suffers a bout of meningitis which leaves him dumb, and he and Wilfred learn to communicate through their own sign language; the boys' mother drives off in her Hispano-Suiza car and disappears from their lives; and their father take up with "a succession of ladies," none of whom like the boys. Then, in early 1937, Hitler walks into Austria and Pale Clouded Yellow butterflies invade the Sussex fields. In pursuit of butterflies, the boys trespass on a nearby property, are seized by the gardener, and hauled before the owner, Mr Schwayder, who is German. But this is not a spy story.
As a result of all these events, the boys (now young teenagers) decide to be independent. They scrape together their meager savings, leave home, and go to London to buy a tram. What they will do with their chosen tram once they have it, they have not considered, let alone how they will get a tram out of the depot without tracks and wires. Alf, the tram-depot foreman, saves their dream by offering them an ancient horse-tram—a "penny-bumper"—which has wheels that can be taken on the road. And, in a tour of the Acton totters' yards (totters were the London rag-and-bone collectors), the boys find an ancient draught horse, used to hauling coal, whose owner no longer wants it.
So, with the tram comes, first, Homer (the horse) and his inseparable companion, Tiger, the dog; then Hattie, a girl of about the boys' own age; then, by chance, a private tram-line in Worthing; followed by bombs, unofficial signaling duties, a German bomber seemingly shot down by Duncan's catapult, a letter from Winston Churchill, and a visit from the King and Queen.
All of this sounds fantastic, but the charm of this story is that it could all, just possibly, be true. William Newton tells it so simply and so plausibly that you end up wanting to search for corroborative evidence. And if you do so, I'm sure you will find some, although the details may not be sufficient for you to verify Wilfred's version of events.
Whether the story is truth or fantasy, however, is not important. It is a wonderful story, told by a story-teller who, if nothing else, can embroider facts so imaginatively that you suspend disbelief. It reads like a memoir, and it captures with deceptive simplicity and humour the adventure, optimism, delights and disappointments of the vanished world of youth. It is a pleasure to read.