Oxford Boy - A Post-war Townie Childhood

Will Wyatt in 1953 with neat haircut, probably from Mr Taylor

Will Wyatt, former BBC Managing Director, remembers shopping in Walton Street

Posted - October 03, 2018

Shopping was nearly all done down the Kingston Road and Walton Street. Griffiths the paper shop delivered our Daily Express and supplied me with comics. Here I learned an important lesson about grown-ups: they did not necessarily know more than you. This was a breakthrough in those deferential and obedient times. Dad sent me to buy some carbon paper for him, ten inches by eight. I asked for it from the woman in the shop whom I knew well. She went off to find some and returned looking apologetic.

“Sorry”, she said, “We’ve only got carbon paper in eight by ten.”

I had to think for a moment and asked, “Wouldn’t it be the same if you turned it on its side?”

She looked puzzled and went off to fetch a packet of the eight by ten and turned it round in her hands.

“Aah, yes.”

I had my haircuts at Mr Taylor’s barber’s shop in Walton Street. He wore a green overall and his own hair was impressively plastered with brilliantine. You didn’t make an appointment but just turned up and waited your turn on one of the chairs against the wall. All too often a grown-up would come in claiming to be in a hurry and Mr Taylor would say, not ask, “Alan you don’t mind waiting while I do Mr Brett?” So I waited. There would be a lot of manly talk about the price of things or Oxford City football team. The cut itself did not take long. An important part of it was a lot of rhythmic scissor clipping away from the head before each attack on the hair. Snip, snip, snip, snip, snip, cut. It emphasised the technicality, even the artistry, of what Mr Taylor was accomplishing. He showed me the end results with a flourish of the hand mirror. I would never have dreamed of saying anything but, “Thank you.”

Nearby was Cape’s the drapers on the corner of Juxon Street, a larger shop than most. It was quiet inside, more what Mum would have called “select” or even “refined”. She would go there for buttons, ribbons, material; it was a place of textures and colours and the promise of the special, a little luxury even. I remember once making our way along Walton Street in a dense, deliciously exciting, greengrey fog. There were several such in my childhood when you could only just make out the other side of the street. They were mysterious and a little frightening.

On the opposite side of the street was Burbank’s the chemist, a regular stopping place. I don’t recall my needing much medication or any pills but there were some regulars, pink cough mixture and vapour chest rub in the winter and always large jars of cod liver oil and malt. This was a delicious sweet, glutinous brown stuff, a daily spoonful of which Mum said would make me “grow up strong,” or as Dad would have it, “put hairs on your chest”. There must have been a fishy flavour but I only remember the satisfying sweetness and the treacly stickiness that made whirls on the spoon and created a long, fascinating tendril as you lifted it from the jar. You could then either twist the spoon round and round to wind in the tendril or, better, hold the spoon high and lower the thin sticky filament onto your tongue. Sometimes Mum would send me on a mysterious errand to Burbank’s with a note in an envelope. The covert nature of the mission told me that the package I returned with was something to do with her being a woman.

I would go with Mum, and later be sent, to the Co-op further up Walton Street. This was fun. It had different counters for different groceries and a separate cashier’s booth. You gave your magic share number, the assistant put your money and the bill in a little container which she fixed to an overhead wire. She pulled a wooden handle propelling the container across the shop to the cashier with an exciting whizzing sound to the cashier’s booth. Back came the change and the receipt.

The Co-op and Mr Knight’s, the greengrocers next door, were at the extremities of our regular beat. Many foods were rationed and could only be purchased with a coupon from your ration book. We were registered with Cleaver’s Quality House at the near end of Walton Street - it’s a Londis now - and where your ration books were registered was where you purchased staples like tea, butter, margarine, lard, bacon, cheese, biscuits and jam. It was quite a ritual as the relevant coupon was carefully clipped from the ration book, allowing you to buy your three ounces of bacon or four .

Author: Will Wyatt

This is an extract, reproduced with permission, from Oxford Boy - A Postwar Townie Childhood. First published in 2018 by Signal Books Limited 36 Minster Road Oxford OX4 1LY. www.signalbooks.co.uk. © Will Wyatt, 2018. Will gave a 'My Jericho talk in February 2018.