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SCREEN IDOLS: Swimmers turned movie stars Johnny Weissmuller and right, Esther Williams were the role models for kids. Ragamuffin army! Tales from the Backstreets By local author GRAHAM V TWIST.

IN the world we now live in it would be interesting to see what the well-dressed youngsters of today would think of the sartorial elegance of their grannies and granddads.

Especially those grandparents who were brought up in the small back-to-back houses and yards of the so-called slums of Birmingham, so-called because whatever their faults the community spirit amongst these breeding places of TB and lots of other illnesses could not be faulted.

Everyone, it seemed back then, was poor. Money could be earned on the side by doing "out work" for the little, and sometimes not so little, factories that gave Brum its title of the "City of a Thousand Trades". And most people being in the same boat as each other, this was the glue that held us together like the skins of onions.

The strength of this community spirit is still in very strong evidence today where there are numerous thriving local societies scattered throughout Brum.

Another thing that held us together was the needles and cottons and designer talents of our moms and sisters when it came to sewing, repairing, knitting or making things fit your body.

In my family's instance, most of our clothes came from either the Rag Market up the town or the Salvation Army's place up by Gosta Green.

Being the youngest, my mom would take me with her to what she called "Sally Ann's". You went into a large hall and on the stage the helpers would hold up the items that were to be sold, each buyer waving their hands and verbally offering a penny or tuppence or threepence for the freely donated gear given by better off people. The sale completed, we would go back for the clothes to be adjusted to fit you.

It was probably at this point that the daydreaming of the females of the family on how you should look took full rein. A girl's blouse could be changed into a shirt for a lad, and so what if it had frilly little bits and bobs hanging off it? If it fitted, that was it.

Darning Socks would be repaired by sticking a spud into them and darning away like mad - again, so what if the wool was a different colour to the original sock, "they fit, don't they"? Larger lads' trousers were cut down to the length of your legs, but not the waist size, so that when you had your braces on you could sometimes look like you were walking about with a barrel around you.

And then there were the second-hand shoes. In one instance I had a pair that the kid who had owned them had had his initials nailed into, so when I was on my hands and knees playing the other kids could see them. It caused a fight one day when a lad wanted to know what they stood for, and having no real answer, a scrap to defend my mom's choice of footwear quickly ensued.

Coats with patches sewed on to the elbows, jumpers of multicolours and different wools, were abundant. Underpants were not a goer until I got my first pair at about 13, although my sister recalls with some horror now about having to wear secondhand knickers and underclothes which had to be washed and dried daily.

But the one area where designer plans seemed to run riot was in the dreaded swimming costume department. Trying to copy Esther Williams or Johnny Weissmuller swim suits didn't really work when ours were made out of wool and not cotton.

When put on dry in your house and made to fit like a glove, there was many a boy and girl who paraded by the pool looking wonderful.

But on entering the pool when the whistle blew, things could suddenly become a different matter.

Where the lads' trunks had been skin tight they now began to stretch with weight of the water and gravity and having no braces, of course, would slowly begin to slide down the unsuspecting wearer's legs, revealing his all to the sniggering kids as he did handstands in the shallow end, or climbed out of the pool. It was hard to keep your dignity in these circumstances!

The girls fared no better and where mom or sis had dyed the costume to look good, if it wasn't done properly then as they swam about they could be followed by a trail of red, blue green or whatever the colour of the day was. They had the advantage over the boys inasmuch as the costume would have shoulder straps, but that still didn't stop the power of gravity taking over and there was many a girl who revealed her charms before she ever wanted to. But the one thing wearing secondhand clothes, hand-medowns and handmade things did give us was that we can now look back and laugh at ourselves. I wonder if our grandkids will be able to do that in 50 years?


THE TWIST FAMILY: From left, Harry, Graham, May, Valerie, Yvonne and Terence pictured in 1944. READY FOR ACTION: Graham Twist and the Summer Lane School gymnastics team of 1955. SCREEN IDOLS: Swimmers turned movie stars Johnny Weissmuller and right, Esther Williams were the role models for kids. RAGTAG: Children are dressed in an assortment of clothing in this classic back-to-backs photograph.
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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:Sunday Mercury (Birmingham, England)
Date:Jun 5, 2011
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