We Learn By Making Mistakes – My life as a criminal.


If, as I believe, “We Learn by Making Mistakes” then I must (in my turn) have made them and so I had better come clean. One confession in particular is required.

In your youth, did you notice that for a few grown up people, it is almost a crime for you to be young and love having fun? This is a burden that every young generation has to bear and it was certainly true for me in St Ives. Thankfully, I don’t think I grew to be miserable and I put that lucky fact down to one significant incident, which involved fish and chips one Thursday evening after Methodist Church Youth Club. We were 13 years old and there was a choice of two chippies a few doors away from each other. Every Thursday we visited the same one. It was called Mrs Beckerlegg’s and we loved that lady. We were always welcomed with a smile, some funny chatter, given an extra portion of batter and left feeling generally good about ourselves.
The other shop, just a few doors down, was called Hendy’s and amongst the younger generation of the town, at that time, it was simply a known fact that we should avoid this place, so I had never been inside.
That particular night after youth club we were disappointed to find Mrs Beckerlegg’s shut. For a while we seriously considered not spending our sixpences (2½p in today’s money) and simply going straight home. Such was our concern about going to see Mr Hendy. In the end youthful hunger won the day and in we trooped. I happened to be first in the queue.
I asked for my portion of chips and took extra care to say, “Please” and “Thank you,” which was easy, as I had been brought up that way. I even gave him a big smile. I think that must have been my mistake because what I received in return was a raging torrent of anger. Mr Hendy looked at me, and bellowed, “Haven’t you got any manners? Why didn’t you say, ‘Thank You?’”
My nervous and stuttered attempt to say that I had indeed said, “Thank you” was obviously another mistake. He ranted on, “Don’t argue with your elders, your kind makes me sick. You’ve got no manners and no respect for your betters. You’ve got no decent values and all you do is layabout. Look at your long hair, that’s a travesty that is, a travesty I say. Do you hear me?”
I nodded helplessly. I was ill-equipped at the age of 13 to argue with this raging man who had red and purple veins seeming to burst out of his face and nose alongside wild, bulging eyes. His spittle was spraying across the counter as well as me, as he gathered more steam for his continuing diatribe. I wanted to tell him that each month my Mum made sure I got my haircut. In fact we all did but it was hopeless and he was in full flow and seemed to be getting louder.

Long hair like that is a sign of laziness and rebellion against all of us good people who pay taxes so that you can be looked after. You don’t know the value of hard work and being brought up properly to respect your elders. You come in here full of cheek and think your horseplay will be ignored by people like me. Well I can tell you I fought in the war…..” and so it went on and on and on. I’m sure you get the gist.

You may think that, had you been in there, you might have told him to stuff his chips and walk out of the shop, still in possession of your sixpence. However, such was our acquiescent natures that we all dutifully stood in line whilst chips were served to us covered in his spittle from his continuing torrent and then we dutifully paid up and left accompanied by the sounds of, “You need a spell in the army, that’s what you lot need. Do you hear me? Time in the army would teach you lot a thing or two, especially that lazy beatnik type at the front. A spell in the army is what you need!”

The shop’s door shut behind us but we could still hear the deep tones of his ranting and only when we walked some way down the street to The Royal Cinema did it finally fade away. My friend Johnny turned to me and said,
 “I think he’s trying to build up the trade.”
We all burst into laughter and in this manner youthful optimism was restored to a bunch of 12/13 year old boys. Sadly, such was the tantalising smell that we even ate those chips.
However, speaking for myself, I fully retained the memory of that night which was burnt into my very psyche and I determined never to become like him.
I tell you this to show how easy going we were as a bunch of lads and, although we certainly had fun, it was fairly simple stuff. I remember when Superglue had not been in the shops very long we scrubbed a tiny spot of harbour pavement clean on one summer’s evening. We then stood around it supposedly chatting but really guarding that spot to keep it clean. Once dried, we super-glued a 2 shilling coin in place. That is a 10p coin today but worth a lot more then and we all had to contribute. When we were sure it was stuck fast in place we “casually” walked over to sit on the harbour railings to watch. Sadly, we could not keep straight faces and always gave the game away far too quickly, as we watched people try to pick it up. Most people found it humorous.
There are a lot more things that we got up to but they are so tame I’m almost ashamed to mention them. The important question is, “Did we do anything that could be considered to be wrong to such an extent that we could have attracted the attention of the local police force?” The answer it turns out is a resounding “Yes.” So here is my personal confession. I can only hope that some sort of Statute of Limitations now works in our favour.

Many of you will be far too young to remember but in March 1967 a super-sized oil tanker called The Torrey Canyon was wrecked on rocks off the West Coast of Cornwall. It was carrying 120,000 tonnes of crude oil, which then proceeded to leak out into the sea.
It was clear to all of us that Cornwall was going to be devastated. Each night in St Ives we watched the weather forecast and news as massive slicks of oil were washed slowly round the tip of Cornwall and almost inevitably started heading our way.
By then the government of the day had decided that nobody in Britain had the required level of technology to stop these huge oil slicks and so the USA was called in to solve the problem. St Ives suddenly became full of American soldiers. To be honest, when I talked to one, I was rather disappointed, as all he did was moan about how cold it was in Cornwall and that he didn’t have his electric blanket.
A few days later we saw the results of their labours. Bright orange “booms” were strong across from headland to headland round all the main beaches and our harbour. These “booms” consisted of a circular floating polystyrene top, which was attached to a 30cm skirt of thin plastic that was weighed down in the water by lots of bits of lead attached to its base. We were told these would keep the oil out to sea. They were deployed with much pomp and circumstance one day and we all watched. We also watched as they were promptly smashed to bits by the next (very ordinary) high tide. There was no excessive wind or rough conditions and we were then told that Cornwall had, “..the wrong shaped waves”. The very next day new booms appeared and by the next morning they too were in tatters.
Now this was where we (a group of school boys) came in. The oil had not yet arrived but our shorelines were littered with bits of orange polystyrene connected to orange plastic skirts, which also happened to be lined with lumps of (valuable) lead. We quickly cut away what we could find. That bit was simple but then the question became, “What do we do with it?” None of us knew about selling lead.
One of us had a Dad who worked for ICI (a big chemical company) and in his back garden he had a laboratory from which we were all banned. Of course this meant that we had been in there many times but had never experimented because we were all too scared of the complicated sounding chemicals. This seemed to be the obvious place to take the lead and we duly arrived with our hoard to find no sign of any parents. However, we still didn’t know what to do with it. Then one of us noticed a jar of window putty on a shelf and pointed out that it could be used to make moulds. We had a Bunsen Burner and so decided to melt down the lead and try to make some coins, but which ones? We were painfully aware that nobody would be fooled by our amateurish attempts and then we thought about the cigarette machines dotted round the town fixed to the outside of shops. They were very common in those days selling 10 cigarettes for a half-crown, which is 12½p in today’s money. We decided it was a challenge.
Over the next 2 hours we fashioned six coins. They were awfully crude and we each used a variety of files to try and smooth out the lumps and bumps. It was hard work but a challenge and we all stuck at it.
That evening we toured the streets and visited every machine, whilst furtively watching to ensure we weren’t observed. Our first five coins all went into the slots but then jammed inside the machines. We came to our last coin and the last machine, which was just inside the entrance to Fore Street next to The Market Place where there used to be a paper shop. We put in our last “coin” and it worked! The handle was turned and out came a packet of ten cigarettes. We all stared in amazement and quite forgot to walk away from the machine as originally planned.
It was only at that point that we realised one thing.

None of us smoked!

I hated cigarettes. I viewed them (and my parents’ chain smoking) as the cause of my asthma. Eventually, one of us said he knew somebody who smoked and we happily handed the packet over to be passed on.
Hence it was that we instantly forgot about this adventure and moved on. Until that is the following Friday morning. That was when the local paper “The St Ives Times and Echo” came out. There on the front page was the headline:

“Criminals Jam Town Cigarette Machines with Forged Coins”.

Criminals! We were Criminals!! At no time did we ever consider we had been acting in a criminal manner or had we considered such matters as the cost of mending the machines. Our life experience did not stretch to such thoughts. This was sobering indeed and reading on we discovered the coins were being tested for finger prints. I didn’t sleep that night. Eventually it transpired that no “matches” had been found and the matter finished there.

This one adventure remained a life-long lesson to me in learning to understand and accept the consequences of my actions, as well as showing tolerance to the young who, often (though not always) rough simple lack of experience, can make some very silly mistakes.


Post Script


I am very sad to say that over the following weeks following this story, the beaches of St Ives became covered in thick layers of crude oil. The smell was appalling. Our American experts then sprayed the beaches with chemicals, which had the most unfortunate side-effect of turning those same beaches into quicksands and everybody was warned to stay away.

It was at this time that Tosher, a true surfing community dog with a free spirit, who we all knew and loved, suddenly disappeared. None of was quite sure who owned Tosher but he was part of our lives and we missed him.

Rest in Peace Tosher.

Note: If you should ever find yourself on Porthmeor Beach, St Ives, Cornwall start digging down (no small children please). After just over a metre you will reach rich, bright golden sand that is the original pre-Torrey Canyon colour. It is a small reminder of our youth.