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23 July 2014
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Warwick Dalzell

Warwick was born in Co Down and taught for a time in Northern Ireland. He sought his fortune in Africa, but returned home penniless. After another stint at the chalkface, he went to London. There he met Peter O'Loughlin who advised him to head for Australia, where he lived on and off for forty years. He is now a frequent pilgrim to the old country.

VE Day by Warwick Dalzell

Suddenly the picture on the screen at the Regent disappeared. There were the usual calls of “Put a penny in the meter” but this time it was different. Unexpectedly we heard the voice of Winston Churchill telling us the war in Europe was over. We sat silently for a time, trying to digest the significance of the news. Would we get more pocket money? Would there be more sweeties? For a second the world stood still, and then pandemonium broke loose. People screamed and jumped up and down for joy. Some hugged one another while others stood silently, tears streaming down their faces.
            There were no more pictures that afternoon. The crowd in the Front Stalls poured out onto Regent Street to join the masses of people already singing and dancing outside. The excitement was infectious and strangers greeted one another like long lost brothers and sisters. Goodbye to rationing! No more coupons! I thought.
            We surged into Burns’ corner shop like a miniature tidal wave.
“Two ounces of Sharp’s Toffees and a bar of McGowan's Highland toffee,” ordered Davy Coffey.
Eena Burns looked up from her knitting.
“Coupons, please.”
“The war’s over. We don’t need coupons any more.”
Eena was unperturbed.
“Listen, son, I don’t care if the cow jumped over the moon, no coupons, no sweets.”
“But Mr Churchill said the war’s over and ........”  Davy never did get to finish that sentence.
“I’m sick and tired of you weans coming in my shop and annoying my customers.” said Eena aggressively.         
Slowly she manoeuvred her large frame from her chair behind the counter. No one in their right mind would challenge Eena, except from a safe distance.
“You can stick your old sweets,” called Leslie. “Your old cat pees on them anyway.”
Eena wasn’t listening. She returned to her knitting.        
So far the end of the war hadn’t turned out as we expected.
Never mind! Plans were soon underway for a street party to celebrate our victory over the Nazis. Some adult said it would be a party to end all parties.
            Most of the kids in John Street were great party animals in those days. Birthday parties were fun but so were Halloween, the Twelfth and the rest. The party to end all parties would have to be something else.
Every celebration had a bonfire and it was our job to collect the material for the fire. Old wooden packing cases made a good starter for the fire and the usual people took advantage of our enthusiasm to rid themselves of unwanted clothing, furniture, oil cloth, anything that was combustible. This fire was going to be so big somebody said we should have the Fire Brigade standing by. Fortunately we had Crabby’s field so it was well away from the houses.
            The morning of the party was cold but dry and people were up from the crack of dawn. A cart load of tables and chairs arrived and they were unloaded quickly. Everyone in the street would be there and the tables, when placed end to end stretched from John Street Lane up to the water pump.
“Them men are useless at things like this,” said a wee woman, with a large family and an idle husband.”
“You’re right there, missus,” agreed big Mrs Mawhinney.         
Of course ‘them men’ mostly were happy to be organised and they rarely interfered. There was one man who was great organiser. That was Jimmy Milling’s father. He was organiser in chief for all street bonfires and he directed us where to go to collect firewood and sundry fuels. Some boys were so zealous they borrowed wheelbarrows. Not all the neighbours were as keen as we were but if they had nothing to burn they handed over small sums of money for the party - in retrospect that was possibly a form of protection money.
            The weather remained mild and we grew increasingly excited at the prospect of the greatest party of all time. Mr Milling decided the fire would be lit on party night so that gave us plenty of time. It was going to be the biggest bonfire ever seen. It covered half of Crabby’s field and some of the people living close by were understandably nervous.
“Not to worry, Mrs McKnight,” reassured Mr Milling.” My sister’s chimney was set on fire last Twelfth.”         
Some ultra patriotic folk even painted the footpath outside their houses red, white and blue and there were Union Jacks flying from nearly every window. When party eve arrived the street was a mass of colour. Everybody was talking about the party.
“Quick! Quick! Help! Help!”
The hysterical screaming was coming from Annie Murphy, a nervous little chit of a girl, who seemed to spend half her life screaming.
“Somebody’s lit the fire. Call the Brigade.”
Not again, we groaned collectively.
We were at a loss what to do but fortunately Mr Milling was standing at his front door. He dashed across to the Allen’s house and started banging on their front door. We watched him talking and gesticulating before we headed towards Crabby’s field. There was some smoke coming from the bonfire but there weren’t any flames.
Before you could say Jack what's his name, the furious ringing of a bell announced the imminent arrival of the Fire Engine. It screeched to a halt at the fire hydrant on the corner of John Street Lane and the firemen jumped off the engine just as they would in a real emergency. They unwound a long length of hose and attached it to the fire hydrant. The leading fireman barked out an order and the firemen holding the hose ran to the fire. The water pressure must have been low for the water barely trickled out but the fire was soon declared safe.
Mr Milling thanked the men for their efforts and they cheerfully clambered on board the wagon to return to the fire station.
Mr Milling was not a happy man.
“Just wait till I lay hands on the eedjit who set that fire,” he growled.
As luck would have it, Mrs McKnight had seen the culprit and she took great delight telling Mr Milling. It was his son, Harry.  You can guess the rest.
For us party day arrived early. The adults were too busy preparing the food to pay us much attention. There were tins of biscuits and big bottles of Cantrell and Cochrane lemonade. We circled the tables, like sharks looking for prey, but each time we were shooed away.
“If youse put your dirty hands near them cakes I’ll warm your ears,” said Mrs Mawhinney, self-elected President of the Spare the Rod and Spoil the Child Club.
The story of how she once beat the daylights out of Budgie Mills, because he gave her cheek, was the stuff of legend.
Captain Sandford of the Salvation Army Free From Sin, was MC and he brought along his megaphone.
“Will you all sit down at your tables, please,” he called. .”Then we’ll say grace.”
A report in the Chronicle the following week reported the tables were groaning under the weight of the food and I can report that our stomachs were groaning under the amount of food that had been consumed. The Salvation Army band appeared and entertained us with a rousing rendition of their favourite tunes. Hughie threw a half eaten potato at Budgie and nearly started a riot. The Silver Band arrived next and they played a series of stirring marches that had us sitting up to listen. After that it was time for games. There was an egg and spoon race, a three legged race, a wheelbarrow race and a piggy back race. Mr Milling had made a torch like the ones you see in the old pictures and he walked round the fire twice, with the flaming torch. The bonfire ignited readily and blazed away. We started dancing round the fire singing songs. It’s funny how the first songs we sang were Orange songs. Bertie Auld played the tin whistle and we then sang some of the old timers like Tipperary and Pack Up Your Troubles.
 Just when the excitement was at its height Sonny Gordon appeared. Sonny was a well known, some would say notorious, character and it was rumoured that he had been deeply involved in burglary and arson. Some people said he was a headcase. All I can say is he spoiled a good party.
            Without warning he rushed to the fire and hurled a parcel into the flames.
“It’s a bomb.” cried Sammy Allen. “It’s an incendiary bomb.”
Just how he knew is beyond me but we didn’t hang about to ask questions
The police took their time but when they eventually arrived but there wasn’t much they could do.
 “I’ll have a word with Mr Gordon,” said Big Billy McCammon. “You might as well all go home.”
No chance. We stood our ground, although nobody was stupid enough to go back to the fire. I’d never seen a bomb up close. Talk about a damp squib. Nothing happened and after a time people started drifting away.  It was a sad but in some ways fitting end to the street party. After all we still had to defeat Tojo!

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