Fudge's escape from Southport
"AT LEAST WE KNOW WHERE WE ARE" , said Fudge.
BY way of a break from states and strife, I've been reminiscing, and looking again at a literary hero who was a major influence on me. I don't know what sort of influence. All I know was that in my childhood I waited eagerly each evening for the "Manchester Evening News" to clunk though the letter-box into our lobby so that, if my parents did not get there first, I could turn to the page with the latest episode in the adventures of Fudge the Elf, and his pal Speck.
I still remember their woodland home, their adventure under water, their trek through a boulder-strewn wilderness to a city which turned out, not unlike parts of our own cities in those post-war years, to be much in ruins. Before long, me and my pal Barry were setting out on similarly intrepid expeditions.
I had not realised these chronicles would be available in book form until some years ago I came upon a copy of "Fudge and the Dragon" in a second-hand bookshop where I had been doing some work. Such was my enthusiasm over it, the manager, Andrew Burgin, who was waiting to shut the shop gave me the copy as my bonus. It sometimes pays to be a nudnik.
I've just discovered there are more of us, and a website
dedicated to Lancashire artist Ken Reid's finest creation (he also drew the original Roger the Dodger series in the Beano). Starting to draw when he was confined to bed with a tubercolar hip as a lad, Ken Reid went to Salford Art School, then launched the Fudge strip in the Evening News in 1938. Apart from a break during his army service he continued it till 1961.
Around the time I was following Fudge and Speck some kids were absent from school for periods, not from measles, mumps or chicken pox etc (on which we traded playground boasts like servicemen comparing campaign ribbons ) but because they had "been to Delamere". This was the Jewish Fresh-Air home on the edge of Delamere forest in Cheshire, and to judge from those who returned with excited tales of what good times they had had, a great place to be.
Whether the object of this institution was to take children from grimy Hightown and Broughton and give them a breath of holiday fresh air their parents could not afford, or to give their hard-working parents a badly-needed break from the noisy kids, I'm not sure. But having enjoyed an all-too-brief Sunday afternoon trip to Delamere forest with my parents, and caught a glimpse of the school's sun-bathed verandahs, I was overjoyed when I heard it would be my turn.
Alas, the next news was that for some reason there was no room for me at Delamere, but I could go to Southport instead. Still, Southport was OK, wasn't it? It was a seaside place, and I imagined going on to the beach each day, paddling in the waves and making sandcastles.
Have you been to Southport? It's a kind of Victorian suburb of Liverpool, without the fun of that city. My Mum might talk about the posh shops on Lord Street, but sea? On a clear day you might just see it from the sea front, and someone even ran trips across the beach to the water's edge in war surplus DUKWs. From the Victorian children's institution where I stayed we were marched in two's down to the promenade one day, and then to a park, then back. That was it.
In the institution, whether sitting on a bench waiting for lunch or later in the noisy dormitory before lights out, I had one consolation. My mam had sent me the cut-out Fudge cartoon strip from the "Evening News". But as I was reading Fudge in the hall one day a strange child sitting next to me snatched it from my hand, and as I tried to snatch it back, he thrust the paper into his mouth and started chewing.
I suppose this kid was not just hungry but had some syndrome or other. Whatever was wrong with him I was not in a tolerant, understanding mood after being deprived of my essential reading, and so I hit him. He cried and yelled, and this brought the horse-faced harridan who was in chage of us striding over to berate me, quite uninterested in my protests that he had stolen my cartoon strip and eaten it, and now I might never know what happened next to Fudge and Speck.
It is hard defending cultural interests against barbarism in an unsympathetic environment. Maybe they should have given my neighbour something to read, printed on rice paper, like a special Readers Digest.
Out in the playground at the back of the institution we were lined up in ranks like soldiers one morning, to be inspected. They may even have given us a ration, one small bar of chocolate. I remember next we stood in files waiting to go back in, and some girl wanted us to join in singing a song, I think it was "Swanee". It wasn't to my taste, I did not know the words, and anyway I wasn't interested. I was interested in weighing up the alley at the side of the building, and wondering if I could get out by it to the street before anyone noticed.
What happened next is subject to uncertainty. According to my memory I did make a break via the alley to the steet and found my way through Southport. I remember seeing a fine big bucket and spade set hanging outside a shop doorway, and regretting wryly that I would not now be needing it. I found my way to the railway station, and slipped on to the platform from which the Manchester train departed.
As I was mounting the train however, a train guard stopped me and asked where I was going, and if I had a ticket. "I gave it to the man", I improvised, being a bit vague on railway procedure. "What man?" he asked. "The man on the barrier". So I ended up back in a waiting room while they fetched someone to take me back to the children's home, where I did not want to go.
It was the horse-faced dragon again, though she had to be nice to me because the railwaymen were listening. "What would you like to eat?", she asked, amid my wails and tears. "Beigels", I sobbed. She looked mystified and asked me what was that? "Beigels!" I said again. In those days that was a culturally-specific reference which was probably why I chose it, just to be awkward.
Actually this escape bit may not have happened. It might have been just a childhood dream which I remembered as though it was reality. Perhaps I was influenced by popular wartime escape films. Anyway, my Dad said when I told him some years later that he had never heard about it. What he did remember was that when he and my Mum came to see me at the weekend I wailed and begged them to take me home. (he reminded me of this when I started going to Summer camps, as though he expected a 14-year old enjoying freedom under canvas with girls in Wensleydale was going to be in a hurry for his parents to rescue him!)
I did go home with my parents that weekend, and remember waiting with them at a bus stop when a big black motor car pulled over. I think it was a chauffeur-driven Roller. An old lady in it spoke with my parents. It was my mother's rich Aunt or something in Southport, whom my Dad referred to as "the Old Dutch" or Duchess of that place (I think that side of the family made their money in shoes). Having inquired what we were doing there, she asked my mother "What did you put him in that place for? It's for the illegitimate children of servant girls". Then the Rolls drove off again.
I heard my Mum talking to my Dad about this later. Of course I did not know what "illegitimate" meant. My dad was just annoyed the "Dutchess" hadn't offered us a lift to the station in her Roller. Back home, I wan't bothered. Even school seemed preferable to Southport. I had my pals, my toys, my Mum and Dad, and tomorrow when they had finished with the "Evening News" I would be able to read Fudge the Elf at my leisure again.
(the illustration is from Fudge and the Dragon, by Ken Reid, first published in 1949, by University of London Press, and published 1981 by Savoy Books in association with the New English Library)