The Red Balaclava

 

Mam obviously wanted twins because me and our kid were always dressed the same, as anyone looking through our family album would casually point out through suppressed sniggers. Chunky home made cardigan sweaters, with inappropriate pictures on them were a speciality, the begging poodles being the supreme example of this, but I personally didn’t like the Robin Hood theme either.

The infamous and matching begging poodles jumpers
At our caravan at Thornwick Bay Caravan Site, Flamborough, Yorkshire

 

In the early 1960’s everybody’s mum and auntie knitted jumpers and made clothes, very few things were bought.

 

One day, possibly in honour of a great historic victory, my mam decided to knit us a matching pair of red woollen balaclavas for school, and for general purpose use (just about everything was for general purpose use in those days). They were red because she had bright red wool left over from some other ghastly utilitarian project.

Those articles, which covered head, neck and shoulders, form a strong and persistent childhood memory for me, far stronger than puberty. They were made, without waste, from left over wool, and after continuous abuse at the hands of two small adventurous boys and several thousand washes, had become stiff, mis-shapen and scratchy (although the latter characteristic was probably a standard design feature of many other hand crafted items of the era).

Pulling on the balaclava was like watching a worm emerge from a hole that was too tight for it. The headwear was amazing in that it could remain fixed on a point no matter which way the wearer looked or turned, just as the barrel of a modern tank can stay fixed on its target independent of the vehicles movement. Wearing one of these things was like never emerging from a railway tunnel. If anyone called your name, (assuming you actually heard them through the dense, shrunken material), at least half the world would immediately disappear as you twisted your head to make eye contact. To see your friend required an action like that of a tortoise reaching for a piece of lettuce with the corner of its mouth. Your friend would then, if he was lucky, make eye contact with half an eyeball, or would be faced with deciphering a muffled reply from somewhere deep in the red. When I was a soldier, during the cold war period, I knew that if captured by the Russians, that I would never crack under torture, because I’d worn a home made woollen balaclava as a kid.

I can’t remember when we stopped wearing this trusty, and almost bullet proof, pre-designer label headgear, a trademark of the young but developing Lane brothers, but I do remember them emerging at a scout camp long after we’d stopped wearing them.
It was the custom of the lads of the 5th NW Leeds, Kirkstall, St. Stephens, to go camping without leaders, a situation which would never be allowed these days, but was perfectly normal for the Kirkstall scouts. We used to go to Bramhope Scout Camp, a place just outside Leeds, but it could have been on the edge of the world for all we knew, or cared. We, and all the ancient kit went up on the back of Pete Walker’s, dad’s milk float. Once there all cooking was done on open fires. Sleeping and horror story telling was done in tents of dubious quality, and all under the guidance and control of the patrol leaders who were about 14 or 15 years old.

Once, whilst on one of these camps, it rained, and it rained, and it rained, pretty standard for scout camps, and we got wet and filthy (again pretty standard), but we couldn’t care less. Needless to say the tents leaked and the camp warden came to the rescue with a huge, green ex-army tent to replace the sodden things we were shivering in. This was great fun as it was big enough for all three patrols to inhabit at the same time, and came complete with bullet holes in the brailings (side walls). The story goes that it had come back from Dunkirk, with, we assumed, the camp warden. Anyway it kept us dry so the only problem we had then was the wet clothes and bedding, a low priority on our lists, a long way below, chopping wood dangerously, food charring, finger scalding, and playing ‘stretch’ (a game involving throwing large sheath knifes into the ground near your mates foot). Rain didn’t stop our general exploration, new local discoveries, and generally being a nuisance by asking stupid questions of any scout leader who happened to be trying to properly organise anything for his posh scouts in the grounds of the same camp.

My dad, who suspected we might be wet, suddenly turned up one morning (obviously prompted by my mother) and then mysteriously disappeared again. He returned an hour later and began handing out clothes like a member of the red-cross in a war zone. Our family has a habit of keeping stuff ‘just in case’ because it might ‘come in’, and so, long forgotten items got a new lease of life on the bodies of these enthusiastic, Leeds kids, who had absolutely no fashion sense, and never wanted any. Thus endorsing the Lane policy of: “never throw anything which once proved useful sometime, in somebody’s life within the last 50 years”.

Stuff got passed around the troop as each new temporary owner discovered he couldn’t get it over his head, thigh or chest, and passed it onto a smaller lad. And suddenly, there they were, the red balaclavas, once more charging around and bumping into things. I’d not seen them for years and felt quite proud. Eventually the whole troop had something dry and warm to wear, and me and our kid experienced the strange sensation of seeing nearly all our clothes in use at the same time.

Once back in Leeds all the clothes came back eventually, over the next few weeks, washed and ironed by grateful mothers, with one exception. I never saw the red balaclavas again. Maybe someone took a liking to them and decided to give them a new lease of life. I hope so.

Perhaps when I’m old, and sat in a wheel chair on the porch of an old folks home, some proud, raggie arsed Leeds kid will run past, totally oblivious of everything, except the circle of light in front of him, bordered in red, and the incredible itching on his cheeks and on the back of his neck.

 

Whilst our cousins (in rear) are immaculately, fashionably, and appropriately dressed in winter clothes, the Lane brothers are still in shorts. We are wearing our red balaclavas (complete with wind scoops to assist with high speed cornering). Our posh coats, which look like girls coats, were fashionable in the early 1950’s.
photo: 1967 – Old Farnley, Leeds

by: Tony Murden (uncle Tony)

 

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