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The Cream and the Blue

by Y-not 

Posted: 12 June 2006
Word Count: 2990
Summary: Based on some research and speaking to two people about life in the 30s and 40s in Birmingham (England). Actually set in early summer 39, main significance being it was before the war started, before the bomb damage (altho I don't really stress this point as the characters and scenes kind of took over). Interested to know what people think of my attempts at reproducing a thick Brum accent. Hopefully provides a bit of fun!

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‘Here it comes, June!’

Gwen tries to grab my hand, but I’m holding a large heavy carrier-bag with it. I look down New Street and try to make out what it says on the front of the tram. I love its cream and blue colour scheme. Some of the buses are that colour as well. Others are Midland Red. I quickly look up, above the awnings, beyond the dangling wires criss-crossing the street, between the towering buildings, and I see the deep blue sky. Dazzled, I look down again and blink.

All this hustle and bustle is so exciting. We must have been to all the shoe shops in Birmingham this morning. The noise, too. Trams, cars, lorries, people. It’s like being inside a giant machine.

‘Quickly, June. Get on!’

Gwen tugs at my arm. I drop my carrier bag with my new shoes inside. A gentleman picks it up for me. I blush and say thank you. He winks, smiles, and drops a half-finished cigarette in the gutter. I like his suit.

‘After you, miss.’

I clamber up. These seats by the door with the old folks will do for me, but Gwen is already pushing her way through a smoky haze toward the back seat. I join her there, in the middle of it, between two men. We can see everyone and everything from here.

At last we’re out of the hot sun, and I can take the weight off my feet. My shoes are pinching me. I mustn’t get sore feet, not now I’ve finally bought my patent leather ankle strap shoes. Gwen keeps promising to take me to some really good parties. She’s already got lots of marvellous shoes. Her parents let her do more or less what she wants.

‘See? That wasn’t too bad, was it?’ Gwen asks, squinting in the sunlight as the tram turns north out of New Street. I can’t help leaning into her, and she leans in turn against a man pretending to read the morning paper. She squeals and laughs. I can’t help laughing too. There is a man in the other corner, on my left. I wonder whether these men are pleased or disappointed that two bubbly teenage girls are sitting between them. I put the bag of shoes down and grip the leather seat so I don’t lose my balance again.

‘Oh, come on, June, get the shoes out. You could try them on. It’ll be a while before we get to Chester Road.’

I smile, and reach down unsteadily for the bag handles. I hope we don’t go round a corner now.


Some people think going to church is rubbish, but it’s not, because that’s where I met Gwen. And most of my friends. We all go to youth clubs. Without the church, my parents would still be living in Aston Hall Road. We had a little garden, we were quite well-off. But then old Mr and Mrs Bentley at Lichfield Road Church, they let us move in with them here in Sutton, near the big park. Sutton’s far nicer than Aston. When the Bentleys died it became our house. Clifton Road is nice, but Gwen’s house on Tudor Hill is much bigger and posher.

Gwen wants me to go to a dance hall in Birmingham. Nothing to do with the church this time. The shoes she chose for me this morning are part of her plan. I just don’t know whether Mom and Dad will let me go. Gwen said I might have to lie to them. Oh, there she is, by the park gate.

‘Hurry up, June. I’ve been waiting ages.’

I bet she’s only just got here. I’m bang on time. Three o’clock. We’re cycling to Bracebridge Pool. It’s the best swimming pool in Sutton Park. Some go back to Henry the Fifth’s time, Dad says. This is wonderful, cycling along together, chatting, laughing, with our hair like streamers in the cooling breeze. What lovely weather. Pity we’ve got to do charity work tonight in Summer Lane.


Two bottles of cool lemonade, and a poolside table to ourselves. Perfect. My hair’s just about dried off now in this heat. I’ll have to wash and comb it though, when I get home.

‘Next Saturday night, June. Is that all right?’

‘I’ll try, Gwen,’ I say. ‘But I can’t promise.’

‘Oh, don’t be silly. Just tell them we’re going to the dance at Maney Hall. All we need to do is catch the bus outside the Dog Inn and we’ll be at the Guildhall by eight. We’ll leave before the end and be back before anyone suspects a thing. What’s the matter?’

I lean over and whisper. ‘Gwen, don’t look, whatever you do, but that strange man who kept looking at us in the pool? He’s heading this way. I said don’t look…!’

Typically, Gwen ignores me completely and looks anyway.

‘He was only smiling,’ she says. ‘It’s nice when people smile at you.’

I turn my head crossly the other way and look at the café. The queue is just as long as when we arrived. Children buying ice cream, grown-ups buying cups of tea and slices of cake. It snakes all the way to our table. It ends right by me. I can hear and feel him standing there. I feel cooler. He’s blocking the sun. A drop of cold water lands on my arm. He’s still wet from the pool. I feel like going, so I ask if Gwen has finished her lemonade, but I don’t say her name.

‘What’s the hurry, June?’ she bellows. Then she looks up at the tall young man and smiles.

‘Are you from Sutton?’ she asks, to my horror. I make a face, and try not to look at the young man towering over me.

‘Nah, we’re from Aston. Oi ’ad ter pie tuppence to goo in the pewl. Yow dunnaffter, do ya? Yow leev rewund eeya. Oi can tell. Yow dunnaffter cum ere fer a baff loike uz, do ya? Yow jus’ cum ferra sweem. We an’t got no baff in our ’ouse so we cum eeya every woik een summa, or we goo ter the indoor slipper baffs in Aston when it’s cowld. Lickle Billy luvzit eeya. Eet’s a shime we azzta pie tuppence oich, thow.’

‘It’s not fair, is it? If you’re from Sutton you don’t have to pay, but people from Aston have to pay tuppence. The pool should be free for everyone. Shouldn’t it, June?

I nod.

‘Ow much is an oice-cream? Oi dunno if oi’ve gorrenuff. Oi need two, wun fer moi and wun fer me bruvver. Where izzee? Billy? BILLY!’

Oh! No need to shout like that! Now I’ve knocked into the table-leg, and Gwen’s lemonade has spilled everywhere. Oh heavens, how embarrassing. Gwen’s laughing. She thinks everything’s funny.


What a way to spend Saturday night! Me and Gwen, holding two bags of knickers in the entrance porch of the Summer Lane Settlement. Where’s the caretaker? We were hoping to hand these over and then get the train back to Sutton. We wanted to catch ‘In Town Tonight’ on the wireless.

‘Ello Gwen. Ello June.’

It’s Anne! She looks very smart. I wonder if she’s going out tonight? That’s unusual. Most of the girls at Summer Lane haven’t got two pennies to rub together.

‘Wot’ve yow brought thees toime, then, eh? Let’s see? Ow, more kneeckers eezit?’

‘Shh!’ I say. ‘You can’t shout that word out loud!’ I’m laughing inside, though. Anne is so funny. She’s our favourite girl in the Settlement. I can’t resist asking Anne about her dress.

‘Dya loike it?’ she replies, gesturing downwards with expressive arms and hands. ‘Peter’s cumin’ ter tike me out in a mo. That’s woy oim eeya at the front doo-er. Ahr’s whytin ferrim.’

‘How exciting!’ shouts Gwen. ‘Who’s Peter? And where’s he taking you?’

‘Peter’s me bruvver. Oi’ve got foive bruvvers. Peter’s really noice. The uvvers down’t cum an see me loike ’e duz. Coz they’re still quoit lickle. Peter’s sixtoyn. E’s a grown man, innee? His dad lets ’im do anyfin’. E knows Pete can be trusted.’

I exchange a quick glance with Gwen, and then I ask why Anne lives in a hostel for homeless women when she has a family and home not far away.

‘Worrit woz, me dad said ’e cudden keep me any moo-er, there wozn’t enuff beds. Oi towld ’im oi cud share a bed wiv lickle Billy, but no, ’e wudden ’ave it. E nevva loiked me cos oi wuz a girl. Oi wuz wundrin’ rewund the stroits and then sumwon brought moi eeya. Oi was sad at first, burroi’ve got me own bed an every fink. And noice people loike yow bring uz fings.’

We’re both touched by Anne’s innocent smile. To be so appreciative, in spite of everything. And maybe it is better to live here than in the slums. How often has Reverend Trebilco told us about the bad parts of Aston and Ladywood? No gardens, toilets, water or drains of their own. What chance have they got of a happy life? 1939? It’s more like 1839 for folks like them.

‘Ere ’e iz! Pete? PETE!

An equally loud voice from outside shouts back. ‘Annie! Ow are ya? Awroit?’

Me and Gwen turn to see this wonderful brother of Anne’s. Oh my goodness! It’s the young man from the swimming pool. Again! He bounds up the front path and leaps up the steps. So much energy. Just like in the pool this afternoon, splashing his little brother. He’s wearing a slightly worn suit, and he’s carrying a cap. He sees the two of us with his sister. A grin spreads across his face.

‘Adu, ladies. Eeya we are again!’

‘Yes,’ answers Gwen. ‘So you’re Peter?’

‘Oh ar. Annie bin talkin’ about me then? All gud, oi owp. Oi’m tekkin’ er out tanoit.’

They beam with excitement. Anne rushes forward and takes his hand.

‘Where are you off to then?’ asks Gwen. ‘I bet it’s a film at the Hippodrome or the Palace?’

‘Nah. Spent too much munnoi on me bruvvers already to-die. We’re jus’ gooin’ to me local ter meet me pals. They said they’ll boi ’er a drink or two. Come on then, me lickle sista. Let’s goo. We’ve gorra long walk up.’

Anne turns round and smiles at us again. Then they jump down the steps, two at a time. I look at Gwen and she looks back at me. We seem to be thinking the same thing. We can’t let them walk all that way. And what about Peter taking his fourteen-year-old sister to some smoky pub full of tired, bitter men all cursing, drinking and smoking themselves into oblivion as they neared the end of their health and their usefulness to the factories. What if one of Peter’s mates takes a shine to Anne. Then what? He buys her a drink? He steals a kiss and a cuddle?

‘Let’s leave the bag of knickers by the caretaker’s door. If we give Peter a few bob he can take her to see a film instead.’

I agree, and we dash down the steps after them. But they’re already out of sight. Which way should we run?


We never caught up with them. Perhaps they took a short-cut. But Gwen didn’t give up. She said we should get the bus to Aston Cross. She said that was where most of the pubs were. If we saw them there, we could give them some money. But did Gwen intend to follow them to make sure they went to the pictures? Was it any of our business?

We didn’t speak much on the bus. We got off somewhere in Aston. I’ve not been to this spot before. I can see two towers and some railway arches. So the station must be near. All these terraced houses and streets. So many houses and people in such a small space.

The sky is still blue, but the shadows are spreading fast. A few aeroplanes fly over the chimneypots. They make a steady droning sound. There’s been rather a lot of that kind of thing lately. Aeroplanes, soldiers in lorries. A lot of soldiers come from round here. They end up at places like St.George’s Barracks. It’s a career for them. Dad says everyone will have to join up soon. All the young men like Peter will have to join the Army or the Navy. But not the RAF. Dad says they only let men from good families fly planes.

‘I think we should’ve got off the bus a bit sooner,’ I say, nervously. This wasn’t too far from where I used to live when I was little, but it was a lot shabbier. We don’t know where to go next. ‘Surely Anne and Peter couldn’t come all this way from Summer Lane,’ I went on, ‘no matter how fast they can walk. They might be in a pub not far from the Settlement. Maybe they’ve gone into Birmingham town centre.’

Gwen looks uncomfortable too. ‘I think we should go home. We can catch the train to Sutton from Aston station,’ she says. I catch her looking at a place called the Railway Inn. About twenty men are loitering outside in the late evening sun, clutching beer-glasses. Some stare back at us.

Gwen takes my arm and we start walking the opposite way. We head for an alley that runs behind the houses and alongside the railway arches. Some small children are running half-naked on the rubbish-strewn cobbles. Two older boys are kicking a ball against a brick wall. There’s a chalk goalmouth drawn on it. Seeing us approach, they stop their game.

‘Excuse me, boys,’ says Gwen, with an air of authority. ‘Could you tell us how to get to the railway station from here?’

They’re filthy. The younger one has no shoes. The other boy has shoes with holes in them. They look a little scared, as though we’re two schoolmistresses coming to punish them. The two boys look over at the station and the railway arches. The tallest boy whispers something to the smaller one. ‘Moi dad nows the why,’ the leader announces. ‘Let’s goo an’ ask ’im.’ And with that, the boys troop off into a dark tunnel. Two tiny boys chase after them as fast as they can, one stopping to try and pick up the heavy, frayed leather football.

‘Should we follow them?’ I ask. Gwen shrugs, looks perplexed, peers down the tunnel and nods. We walk closely together with heads lowered, through this dark brick tunnel. We enter a small square yard surrounded by four small, crumbling houses. It smells of damp and toilets. The shared outside privy is right next to us. Flies buzz around it. Children’s toys are strewn around - bicycles, prams, dolls - as well as a proper pram. Is there a baby in it? If so, it’s quiet and still. A noisy wireless blares from a few houses away. A woman looks out at us from a bedroom window. The raised voice of a man escapes into the courtyard through the open back door of one of the houses.

Suddenly there is barking, and a dog runs out of the door. A small dirty bulldog. I cling to Gwen as it snaps at our feet. We turn to run back through the tunnel, but then stop. A haggard old man in a vest and trousers held up with braces shuffles out of the same doorway as the dog. He is unshaven. Without taking the cigarette out of his mouth, he yells, in a voice echoing round the courtyard.

‘Busta. BUSTA!’

The dog bounds back to his master’s feet, his tongue hanging out, his breathing rapid, his eyes excited. He tries to climb his master’s legs.

‘Geddown, yer bluddy floibag!’

Despite the shocking language, there’s real affection between man and dog. The man pats the dog’s head, but then is nearly toppled by several of the boys we’d seen in the alley. They all squeeze past and line up quietly in the yard, watching us. The smallest one is still holding the ball and refuses to give it to anyone else.

‘Can oi ’elp yow young lie-dees?’ asks the old man.

‘Yes,’ answers Gwen. ‘Erm, we were wondering what the quickest way is to the railway station from the alley back there?’

‘Yow mean Lover’s Walk?’

We looked at each other, amazed at the romantic name. He smiles.

‘Leesten. Oi fink it’s oisier if oi tek yow thru the ’ouse. Yer’ll affta furgeeve the state ovvit. If yow ad foive boys an’ a dog ter look afta, yow’d be the sime. Not furgerrin’ the woife, ha ha!’

He’s the father, I realise. He can’t be as old as he looks. He chuckles and motions for us to follow him inside. We don’t seem to have much choice. We enter a dark living room, the mangle in the doorway almost blocking our progress. I bang my elbow on it, stifling a cry of pain. I see another pram and a bicycle. Such a terrible smell. Old food, tobacco, everything.

‘If Pete wuz ’ere, it’d be even mooer crowded,’ the man adds, coughing, stumbling and stepping over the debris, into the front room. ‘Bloody mess!’ I glimpse a large, short woman in the shadows. She looks but says nothing. At the front door, I step past the man and gulp fresh air again. Gwen does the same.

He tells us the way. Up to the end of so-and-so street, turn left, then keep on, you can’t miss it, and all that. We thank him and go. We have to pass the Railway Inn after all.
Once round the corner, we see the stone steps leading up to the station. We climb them, wondering.

There are lots of poor Peters in Aston.

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Comments by other Members

Zigeroon at 11:13 on 13 June 2006  Report this post


This piece is really atmospheric but the Birmingham accents are a no, no. As you say they are fun to do and you've captured the tone but modern readers don't want to work too hard deciphering the meaning of local dialects, this one included. A taste of the vernacular, a hint of where their from to point the reader in the right direction and then back into plain speak. Sorry to be the harbinger of bad news.

The story of the two girls is really entrancing and the feeling of the times comes across very well. The gentle introduction of the conflict of going to the town centre dance is neatly drawn.

Were they teenage girls in nineteen thirty nine? I think that might be a fifties phenomenon.

'Turn my head crossly'? I don't think you can!

Really enjoying this and look forward to the next upload.



Sorry Y not, got confused as to author. Thought I'd clicked on Jenni's piece. Embarrassed or what!!!

Y-not at 12:36 on 13 June 2006  Report this post

Well I won't take it personally, seeing as it wasn't addressed to me!

Thanks for the comments - very useful. The accent thing is something people might not go for, you're right.


Jenniren at 13:30 on 13 June 2006  Report this post
Tony, i get what you are trying to with the brummy acient. And to be honest while if i read it out loud in my best attempt at a midlands brawl i can just about get it, it just a wee bit hard to decipher what they are saying.
Other than that it is very good. As for there not being teenage girls in the 1930's? seriously did they pop out fully formed??? sorry bad joke. No i just wanted to say that while it didn't become cool to be a teenager until the 1950's, the issues of teenage girl were about before then. Eg Dodi Smith's 'i capture teh castle' is about teenage girls coming of age and was writen before www1. so i don't think it's a problem.
i enjoyed it now. Jenni

Y-not at 21:50 on 13 June 2006  Report this post
Cheers Jenniren

Well there were teenage girls, although I think what Andrew meant was the teenage subculture wasn't as clear-cut as it became later on. But having spoken to one or two oldies, I got a picture of how things were around that time. A lot of it was down to money. The two main characters are of the better-off variety, so they would have been at liberty to go shopping. As for dances, then as now, if they played it right, they could probably get most of the drinks bought for them, and in any case, most of the dances 'well-behaved' church girls would've gone to wouldn't have served alcohol anyway. people hung out in cafes during the day and went to non-alcoholic dances in the evening, often in church halls. But these girls, particularly Gwen, would be pushing the boundaries as far as they could in those days. The shoes June bought were a prize asset - something the real June never actually did get round to buying!



Vixen at 13:49 on 14 June 2006  Report this post
I like it, like the girls, the setting, the contrast between poor and middle class.

Like the other readers, I don't like the accents. Too much trouble to read. At the same time, you want to suggest the difference in speech and thus class and probably education between the two sorts of characters. Maybe you could do a kind of bastard version, an indication with a few words but not all. For example:

‘Leesten. Oi fink it’s oisier if oi tek yow thru the ’ouse. Yer’ll affta furgeeve the state ovvit. If yow ad foive boys an’ a dog ter look afta, yow’d be the sime. Not furgerrin’ the woife, ha ha!’


"Listen, oi fink it's easier if oi take you through the 'ouse. Yer'll hafta forgive the state of it. If you 'ad five boys an' a dog to look after, you'd be the same. Not forgetting the wife, ha ha!"

The idea would be to choose a few words, and those easy to read, and keep the rest regular spelling. When I read 'woife' I thought he was making a joke about keeping the wolf from the door, not his wife.

Looks interesting but depressing.

Y-not at 17:12 on 14 June 2006  Report this post
Thanks, Vixen. The accent thing was the big question-mark and it's good to get feedback on whether it works or not. I suppose the crucial point is, would readers find it fun to take time deciphering the accent, or would they find it either a pain, or impossible. It would be nigh on impossible, I suspect, for many people from overseas to decipher, and it would also be impossible to translate, although that hurdle could be got over by substtuting a foreigh regional accent in its place, I suppose.

Cheers, Tony

choille at 23:00 on 07 November 2006  Report this post
Hi Y-not,

Sorry to be ages to get reading your story which I really enyed apart from the halt of the accent.

I liked the excitement she feels of being in the city as being akin to being in a machine.And I do think it is a very readable piece of socail history that is well written.

I think you should maybe tone down the accent and it would speed the reading making it a fully enjoyable story.

All the best

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