Photo © Karren Visser. There is a book to be written about Ray’s earliest memories growing up on a squatters’ camp in post-war England due to a housing shortage. He returned to the area, known as Perry Hall Park for the first time since he was a small boy and tried to find the metal Bailey bridge, he ran across into the camp singing Billy Goats Gruff.
Listen to Ray’s story.
My unseen memories, from blissful unawareness to blind school.
I’m Ray. I go right back to the 1940s, when I was born. Bear with me, please if I go back to those early years before I describe the two objects, I want to share with you.
I came into a world which was still bomb damaged. An industrial landscape. Smogs. The National Health Service was starting out at that time too, and there was a housing shortage.
At this time, I was living with Mom and her family in an overcrowded council house on the outskirts of Birmingham. The only way of escaping that was for my family to set up home on one of the squatters’ camps which was springing up on the edges of Birmingham at this time. So, on a dark night my family moved into an empty army hut on the edge of Perry Hall Park. In fact, a lot of people were taking over ex-army huts and such around this time because of the housing shortage.
My earliest memories are running out of our new home round to neighbours and to family friends who had also moved onto the camp to talk to them. And running up the nearby bank to watch the steam trains whizz by. I was quite unafraid and unaware of any danger, but my Mom was certainly aware and she would often run after me and drag me back screaming. At this time, there seemed little to fear. There were bikes and motorbikes, but almost nobody owned a car. It seemed a very safe space at that time. It did to me, but not to Mom, who was very fearful of me running around so freely. I so well remember skipping over the metal Bailey bridge into the camp singing Billy Goats Gruff and fearing the troll really did live under the bridge and would eat me for his supper.
[Billy Goats Gruff tune plays – Going trip, trap, trip, trap over the rickety rackety bridge. Trip, trap, trip, trap, hop a skip, hop a skip. The big bad troll stuck his head up and said: I am a troll folderol and I’ll eat you for supper.]
Quite soon after this, we moved into a brand-new council house. It was very nice and backed onto open fields with a babbling brook running nearby, which I would run out to and gaze and look at with Mom running after me fearful as always, and dragging me back, complaining. And so, to the first object I want to share with you.
It was 1953, the Queen’s coronation, which me and the family and a lot of others all watched on a tiny black and white TV set. I could hardly see this, and I didn’t really see the crown being placed on the Queen’s head, so I didn’t relate the crown to the Crown Bank money box I was presented with at the fete in the afternoon. I remember it as a lovely object, a golden colour with nice scarlet covering and had a sort of velvety feel to it, and it was nice to look at too. It’s long since got lost, but you can see many of them now for sale on eBay and around the Internet.
It was only when I arrived at the special partially sighted school that it became apparent, I could see much less than I thought, or perhaps anyone else thought at the time. I wasn’t learning to read and so I was sent to see a specialist, an eye doctor we called Doctor Tree. He was quite an irritable, irascible sort of person who got annoyed when I couldn’t read the words or the pictures of animals on the chart. He sighed, and concluded, this boy has to go to a special school. There’s a nice blind school you can send him to. They’ve got horses. You’ll enjoy it there.
When I got to the school, there were no horses. I was quite unhappy and miserable, of course, for the first few days after getting to boarding school. But I soon started to learn to read Braille and then to write it. At first on the writing frame, one dot at the time. The school soon persuaded my parents to buy me a Stainsby Braille Writer, a three-piece affair, which came in a neat little case. It was very, very noisy and it’s hard to imagine the amount of noise when twelve or more of us in a class were banging away writing our short stories or essays.
I went on later to get a Perkins, and that was quite a noisy machine too, but the advantage with the Perkins was it was an upward Braille writer. That meant that unlike the Stainsby, you could read what you were writing while you were writing it. You didn’t have to take the paper out of the machine to read what you were writing.
OK, I couldn’t find a Stainsby because they’re pretty hard to come by, so here’s the second noisiest Braille writer, the Perkins Brailler. [Keyboard makes loud clattering noise, and a bell dings] I am writing on the Perkins for the Unseen Memories project, full stop.
So, at last I became aware that I was blind or registered blind. Gone were the innocent days of the squatters’ camp.
© Unseen Memories, produced by Karren Visser and Sandwell Visually Impaired, 2023.