I’m Pete McLaren and here’s a little bit about what’s gone on in my life so far. I was born when my folks (Scottish father & Irish mother) lived on the south coast of England back in 1944. It was an austere period – one of the many – in Britain’s and, indeed, Europe’s history. WWII wasn’t yet over and my dad was a fighter pilot who flew Hawker Hurricanes hedgehopping over the south coast. Hedgehopping was an adrenaline pumping kind of flying during which the British hedgehoppers latched onto the German fighters that accompanied the bomber squadrons on their raids over Britain.
My old man (a very young man at the time) would select a German fighter and then keep it as long as possible, herding and shepherding it, over the countryside until the point came where the German pilot, his fuel running low, would have to make a run for it out over the English Channel. Then my Dad would try to shoot it down. He couldn’t shoot an enemy plane down over Britain as it did too much damage when it hit the deck. The German pilots knew that as long as they were over Britain they wouldn’t be shot down by the Brits and would hang on as long as they possibly could, flying low over the hedges in the hope of out-flying their pursuers. Sometimes they did and at others they weren’t so lucky, but many simply ran out of fuel and had to ditch into the channel. He told me that he and his fellow pilots weren’t so much interested in doing away with the pilot as costing Germany another hard-to-replace Messerschmitt.
The village I was born in – Dibden Purlieu - was near the sea and at the edge of the New Forest which was planted in the 1500s by Henry 8th and a few helpers to grow oak trees from which to make the English Navy’s warships. It’s a beautiful area I guess but I never felt that I wanted to be there. Early on at primary school we used to be visited by a man selling “savings stamps” every fortnight and, to keep us quiet while he was doing his business, he would bring a few copies of National Geographic for us to look at.
Those magazines used to fascinate me. I just couldn’t get enough of those wonderful pictures of the Rocky Mountains or places in China or Russia and people with different looking faces to the folks in our village. I was just crazy about pictures with palm trees; their trunks bending out over sandy beaches and bays of aquamarine coloured water stretching away into the distance.
Every summer the “onion Johnnies” came around our village on their bicycles. Onion Johnnies were French onion growers who had formed a syndicate and filled up a warehouse in Southampton with their onions. They’d ride around the villages in the New Forest selling them and the local ladies said they were the best onions money could buy. The onions were plaited and hung down from the handlebars almost to the ground. These French farmers could barely speak English and I was enthralled by their accents. I think the local housewives were fascinated by their accents, and possibly more, judging by the amount of time these guys seemed to spend in the houses selling their wares.
Then, in spring, the gypsies would visit for a month or so. They’d park all their gaily coloured wagons in Mullins Lane and their womenfolk would wander about Dibden Purlieu selling clothes pegs and other artefacts. Their men would buy any odds and ends of scrap metal, old car batteries & the like from houses all around. They had a reputation – deserved or not – for thieving and we kids weren’t allowed to associate with them. That made me all the more interested in these people and a school friend and I used to visit their camp regularly. We were well accepted and treated with nothing but kindness during these clandestine excursions. I remember once eating some cooked meat the gypsies gave us only to find out later that it was hedgehog. Patrick Bundy and I were horrified and thought we were going to die from hedgehog poisoning or some such dire malady.
But what I remember most about those times was the singing. Gypsy women would sing songs in Romany that we couldn’t understand. The songs were unusual and the closest I’ve heard to them since is “the Ballad of Matty Groves” in the version done by Fairport Convention in the 70s. They were sort of medieval and slightly Middle Eastern and I remember them being accompanied by a guy with a huge guitar like a cut down double bass. There was often a fiddle player and there was another stringed instrument that I didn’t know the name of too. Looking back on it I think it was probably akin to a lute but I couldn’t be sure of that.
Email Pete: email@example.com