Steve Cardownie: Memories not made on Xbox

An Onion Johnny on his rounds in Edinburgh
An Onion Johnny on his rounds in Edinburgh
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‘Can I play on my Xbox dad?” my ten year old son recently asked me, which caused me to cast my mind back to when I was ten and what I did in a time where Xboxes belonged to the realms of science fiction rather than the reality it is today.

Growing up in the cobbled streets of Leith brought it’s own adventures and challenges.

Guider racing, where all you needed was an old fish box, four pram wheels, a couple of pieces of wood and a length of rope – hardly a Ferrari but no less exciting to us anyway. No spraying champagne over the winner, just a drink of sugarallie water and a packet of crisps (there were only two flavours, plain and cheese and onion). We used to take great pride in our sugarallie water, made from a piece of jet black Spanish liquorice, water and sugar all in a Hendry’s juice bottle which was vigorously shaken and then put in a dark place for as long as you could resist the temptation to open it.

If you popped into the local grocer (Lambert’s) you could buy a penny dainty (toffee) which was too big to fit in your mouth whole (yes, even mine) which meant you had to try and break it in two on the kerb whilst risking breaking your hand in the process.

Come Hallowe’en a group of us would go out “guising” and I would dress up as an “Onion (ingin) Johnny”. I would happily knock on doors with my pals and we would all regale the occupants with the opening theme song of Robin Hood – “Robin Hood, Robin Hood riding through the glen, Robin Hood, Robin Hood with his band of men, Feared by the bad, Loved by the good, Robin Hood, Robin Hood, Robin Hood” – and hopefully depart with a few pennies for our efforts.

(An “Onion Johnny” was a Breton Farmer or agricultural labourer who would cycle through the streets on their bicycles covered with strings of onions for sale – for a boy of ten it was a magnificent sight.)

After Hallowe’en we would begin preparations for Bonfire Night. We would walk through the streets looking for pieces of wood, old furniture or anything that would burn.

If we happened to find another street’s bonfire collection we might plan a “boney-raid”. Armed with cudgels (more for show than anything else) we would attempt to relieve them of their booty in order to fuel our own.

At that time we could augment our pocket money by selling old clothes to “Balloon Bobby” who would traverse the streets with a handcart, festooned in balloons and complete with a set of scales. He would blow his bugle to let you know he was coming, which was the signal for us to collect our offerings and wait for him to enter our street.

As a treat every now and then we would congregate in a large group to be marshalled by two or three of our “Ma’s” and marched down to the docks at the foot of the street to see the latest ship launched by Henry Robb’s. We would stand as close to the water’s edge as we could for a better view only to sprint back in horror as the dispersed water from the vessel rushed onshore and threatened to soak us.

We would sing “We’re all off to the Tally To’or” which was the colloquial name for Martello Tower built at the docks in 1809 as a deterrent to the French Forces in the Napoleonic Wars.

Xbox? If we had them then, then I might not have had so many fond memories of my childhood.

Calum has his time restricted on his Xbox and is encouraged to take up other, outdoor, pursuits. After all, why should he be denied the satisfaction of thinking back to his childhood and remembering what made it so special?

I can, and often do.

Steve Cardownie is an SNP councillor for Forth Ward