Saturday, 5 February 2011

To Wigan via Reykjavik

Part One

Chapter One

“Children are still being killed in the war in Croatia!” said the two Police Officers being interviewed on the B.B.C. Radio program: “Who Cares?”

Then he really hit us with: “We believe some have even witnessed their parents being executed!”

I wanted to say something but couldn’t think what.

“So we are looking for volunteers to help us load the wagons and we still need more money or supplies to help those families out there. You can see it yourself on your TV that the war is still raging.”

I was showing them out of the studios when I thought I would ask - knowing they’d probably say maybe next time. I thought I would ask anyway: “I’d love to come with you?”

“We’d love to have you join us. We are leaving in six weeks.”

“I’ll be ready.”

Ev, my immediate boss at the Radio Station, said “I don’t want you to go. It’s not for you, please don’t go.’”


“Who is going to look after you; if you are ill?” screamed my wife. “Do they know about you…. Have you told them?”


Bombs were thudding in the far distance from where we were all standing with rest of the convoy on the Slovenian – Croatian border. We were nervous as to what we were going into with this; the biggest humanitarian convoy ever which had all been organised by the various Police forces around England.

About three hundred Police Officers, Medics, Support Workers, Journalists and then me the Poet in Residence for the B.B.C. “Who Cares?” radio programme climbed back into our fifty or so articulated wagons between borders on that summer morning of June 1993; ready to go in……


September 1948. No one really knew Thomas Edgar Street even though he had worked in Hesketh’s Cotton Mill for nearly thirty years. He wasn’t weird or anything like that; he just wasn’t talkative. His job was stoking the fires deep in the ‘fire-hole’ below ground level where very few entered except for maybe the police or such like who brought in dead dogs or cats to be ‘got rid of’ in the fires. .


Catherine Conroy was alone on the outside wall of the cotton mill eating her dinner when Thomas Edgar Street walked over to her and with out even saying hello asked: “So when is the baby due?”

“In four months.”

“Is it right you jilted him at the altar?”

“That’s right. What on this earth has it got to do with you?”

Christmas 1948. Being a Christmas baby; Mam had planned to call me Gabriel or Noel! Then Uncle Peter suddenly died a fortnight before. So, she pushed me into the hands of a Wigan mid-wife in Billinge Hospital around one o’clock, Christmas morning and re-named me Peter. For eighteen months, she coped with the loneliness, name-calling, and the abuse from other local women who didn’t even know her. She accepted that, but to have women from her own village who she had shared nappies, knickers, nylons and lipstick with, became too much, especially when they started to shout out: “How’s that little bastard of yours?”

She now understood why the other single Mam from her village ended the abuse in the cold waters of the local canal? Mam never understood why it was her so-called friends from childhood. Women she had worked on the ammunitions with. Women who had lost boyfriends and husbands to the Germans. Women who had stuck together and supported each other through what ever and they did support each other except when a new born baby out of wedlock was involved. Then everything changed!

August 1952 when Thomas Edgar Street approached Mam again, this time it was with a bizarre deal. He needed someone to be his live-in housekeeper: laundry, cooking – that sort of thing. Mam accepted, but on her terms. Terms she wrote down there and then while sitting on the outside wall of the mill, she wrote in pencil, on a rough piece of paper and then signed it near to her bag of chips and a pot of cold tea! Neither knew anything about each other – but it was one of those moments and Mam grabbed it with both hands.

October 1952. It was a register office marriage which Mam, being a Catholic, didn’t really recognise. But it’s what he wanted. Yes, she wore the ring – but that was as far as it went! There were two witnesses: myself ( in law didn’t count) who suddenly changed from being Peter Conroy to Peter Street and the only really close friend Mam had: Abrahana a young Dutch woman who had escaped the Nazis with her baby in arms, Kathleen, who was just four years older than me.


I had a wonderful childhood: strange, but wonderful. Strange in the sense my Dad, Thomas Edgar Street, was nearly sixty years older than me. Even stranger was the lie my Mam and Dad lived while in the house I grew up in: a large four bed-roomed Victorian house on Blackburn Road, Bolton. To the outside world they were an ordinary married couple with all the usual problems of a nineteen fifties working class household. Wrong. For a start Mam was from an Irish Catholic family, who had witnessed the burning of Cork by the Black and Tans.

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