Language idiosyncrasies and Father Christmas - Tony Cunnane's Autobiography

A Yorkshire Aviator's Autobiography
Tony Cunnane
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Language idiosyncrasies and Father Christmas

I was something of an oddity at the infants' school because I spoke in a curious mixture of the Lancashire and Yorkshire dialects, which the other infants found rather amusing and the teachers certainly found frustrating. The different meanings ascribed to certain words and phrases had an unfortunate result one cold and dark winter morning in Class 2 when school started during a torrential autumn rain storm. The harassed teachers helped us out of our sodden outer clothes as we stood dripping and shivering in the cloakroom at the front entrance. We then moved into the large classroom and stood around waiting for further instructions. I remember the wonderful roaring fire in the open grate at one end of the room: clearly one of the teachers had been in very early to get that going. A latticed metal screen, designed to prevent clumsy children falling onto the fire, stood on the hearth and there were clouds of steam everywhere.

"Tony, go and put these socks on the fire, please," said one of the stressed teachers as she handed me the pair of soggy socks she had just pulled off another pupil. Assuming the socks were now beyond repair, I did just that: I put them on the fire. Fascinated, I watched the wool bubbling and shrivelling as the flames consumed the socks. Having seen what I had just done, but too late to stop me, the teacher in vain tried to rescue the socks from the fire with a poker. "Put the socks on the fire" was an idiosyncrasy of the Yorkshire dialect that I was not familiar with. It didn't mean, "put the socks on the fire": it meant, "put the socks on the fire-screen in front of the fire to dry".

"If you didn't want me to put the socks on the fire, why did you tell me to put them on the fire?" I asked with some asperity and received a slap for my trouble. That teacher would doubtless have ended up in court these days for assaulting me. As it was, the unfortunate lady presumably had the difficult job of explaining to the child's parents what had happened to his socks. Since all clothing in those wartime years was 'on the ration', the boy probably went sockless until the parents had saved up sufficient rationing points, and money, for a new pair. My parents were duly informed of my stupidity.

"How was I supposed to know what she meant?" I asked Mum sulkily. How indeed?
Added in 2017: Some years ago, I remember reading a Yorkshire newspaper report about an elderly driver who had come to a halt at a railway crossing even though the gates were wide open, and the warnings lights were off.  Eventually the irritated driver behind came up to the leading driver and said, angrily: “What are you waiting for?”  The driver replied, “I’m waiting while the lights flash!” Some words still have different meanings in different dialects: in the Yorkshire dialect “while” can mean “until”.

Just before Christmas 1942, I rumbled the fact that the Father Christmas who had turned up at school to tell us stories and hand out small presents, was not the real Father Christmas at all. However, so as not to spoil the enjoyment and mystery for the younger ones, I didn't say anything about my discovery straightaway. I hung back until everyone else had left. Then the teacher came up to me and said, "Don't you want to go home tonight, Tony?"

"Oh yes, Miss," I said. "But I waited till everyone else had gone because I wanted to ask you who that man was and where he got his Father Christmas clothes from?"

"I expect his elves made them for him," replied the teacher, rather taken aback by my question.

"Don't be silly," I replied. "He was just an ordinary man pretending."

"All right, Tony," said my teacher, wearily. "I can't stop now, I've got things to do. Come and see me in the morning and I'll tell you then what you want to know."

The following day was the first day of the holidays, so I didn't see her and by the time the new term started I had, of course, forgotten all about asking her about Father Christmas.
Left: My very first school photograph (1942)
The first time I remember having my photograph taken was a school photograph taken at Christ Church School; it was taken outside in the playground with a blanket nailed to the wall for the backdrop. The teacher told us that it was very difficult to get film because of the war, but small amounts were allocated to schools to allow individuals' photographs to be taken for posterity.

During the war years, young children's clothes were usually too big when bought in order to allow the owner "to grow into" them. My jacket in this school pic clearly shows that it had outlived its usefulness for me because you can see the buttons straining against the buttonholes (and I was very slim-built). My parents almost certainly passed this jacket on to another boy smaller than me. Because clothes were strictly rationed during the war, parents could usually apply for additional coupons for young children's clothes - but that did not solve the other problem: finding the money to pay for them!

For the taking of the photograph, all the children in my class took it in turns to stand by the outside wall and there was a lot of giggling going on. I was the first to have his photograph taken. I was apprehensive when the teacher told me to put my hands behind my back - that's what we always had to do if we started fidgeting in class and that probably accounts for my miserable countenance.

The photographer hid under a blanket that covered his camera and his head and shoulders. The big lens poking out from the blanket at the front of the camera looked a bit like the barrel of machine guns that I had seen in comics. The photographer said to me from underneath the blanket "Watch the birdie", which seemed to me a bit silly because there was no bird. I don't suppose I really thought he was going to shoot me - but strange things happened during the war and I had heard on the BBC some of the dreadful things happening in France and Germany. We didn't get the photograph for several weeks and I had forgotten all about it by the time it arrived. Mum thought it was awful - and I agreed with her, but I still have the original.

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