Wednesday, 16 August 2017

A Very Junior Typist For The Lovells

My love affair with London emerged out of the books I borrowed from the library. This was almost certainly the case because when I looked back on my short life on the occasion of my fourteenth birthday, I realized I had only visited the city twice. Once was with my father when I was nine years old and he took me to the British Museum and again when I was thirteen when my mother organized a quite unexpected outing to London Zoo with a neighbor as a treat for my brother’s sixth birthday. Being quite unaccustomed to birthday treats the experience became vivid in memory. I was desperately anxious to make a trip to the exciting city only twenty miles up The Thames, by myself, an independent traveller but money was always the obstacle. The return ticket on the fast train was five shillings, slightly less on the slow train and even if I only allowed a little more for the necessary spending, the thought of somehow or other coming by the huge sum of almost ten shillings seemed quite impossible. Money, or the lack of it, invariably stood in the way of the progressing of my objectives.

My mother’s employers, The Lovells, had donated an outdated office typewriter to me when I first went to Wombwell Hall and began the Commercial Course that was going to give me a nice clean office job. The machine was an Underwood, made in 1914 and it took the combined efforts of the Lovell brothers, Mr. Christopher and Mr. Lawrence to transfer it from the back seat of their father’s car onto our kitchen table. My mother looked at it doubtfully, knowing how unlikely it was for it ever to be transferred elsewhere and Old Nan commented that she would have told them where to Shove It if she’d been present at its delivery and that it was the likes of Them Lovells That gave me my Airs & Graces. Nevertheless it was a most exciting moment as far as I was concerned especially as they had also given me a whole ream of A4 pale blue copy paper to accompany it. There was no doubt in my mind that I was now in possession of all I needed in order to become a famous novelist and in the interim I would be able to write letters to newspapers complaining about the lack of social housing and the behaviour of some local children on buses.

Because of the financial restraints our family was under, once the pale blue A4 paper ran out, which it did surprisingly quickly, I was not in a position to replace it so I began to steal paper from Miss Hart’s typing class at school, two or three sheets at any one time and I was always careful to use both sides once the thefts began which made me feel virtuous and very soon I did not look upon this pilfering as anything other than justified.
The positive aspect of both the typewriter and the thefts was that my typing was improving in leaps and bounds and I became by far the fastest and most accurate typist Miss Hart had ever encountered in her fifty two years of teaching, which was flattering if indeed it was true. She told me with her usual enthusiasm that I was a Natural Office Worker and would undoubtedly rise to the top of any Typing Pool.

When my mother proudly conveyed this pleasing news to the Lovells something very exciting happened. Mr. Bertram Lovell decided that during the coming school summer holiday period I should work in his office from nine until five daily as a junior shorthand typist and office assistant for which I would be paid one pound per week. Predictably Old Nan commented that this was Daylight Bleeding Robbery and even Aunts Martha and Maud were doubtful because their Pat and their June were getting nine and sixpence each on Saturdays at Woolworths in Dartford. Having never been the recipient of any sum in excess of two shillings previously in my life I was entirely elated. The reality of taking on the job at the tender age of not quite fifteen, however, proved when the time came to cause me more anxiety than I had bargained for.

Mr. Bertram Lovell was a lawyer and worked with his lawyer son, Mr. Christopher and a clerk called Henry in a tall house in one of the roads to the West of the station. Their secretary was called Pauline and she was engaged to Donald who lived in Norfolk and came from a farming background. She seemed to be very competent and I was quite taken aback by her shorthand speed because until I met her, I was convinced that being the fastest shorthand writer in Miss Hart’s class, I must also be the fastest in our corner of Kent. My first dictation session with Mr. Lovell Senior caused me to immediately revise that opinion.

There was really little need for me to be frightened of him. My mother had worked for the family for a number of years, cleaning their house dutifully three times each week and I had met each member of the family on a number of occasions. Nevertheless he struck fear into my heart, sitting there behind the wide expanse of desk wearing his dark blue pin stripe suit and burgundy tie and radiating middle class authority. He smiled, displaying huge yellow teeth and told me he would speak very slowly and that I should Sing Out At Once if I couldn’t keep up. He then proceeded to dictate three short letters at what I could only consider to be a horrendously rapid speed. However, helpful Pauline reassured me and said she’d been listening and had been relieved that he was going so slowly. I nodded, fought back tears that were almost choking me and turned my attention to the struggle ahead which was to decipher the symbols that jumped up and down on the page, trusting to luck that I would be able to make something of them and type up the result whilst it was all still fresh in my mind. However, the next day I courageously and firmly made the request that he slowed down – which he did, and thereafter, better still, I endeavoured to be the one who took dictation from Mr. Christopher who at least stopped every few seconds to think about what he might say next.

At the end of the first week, the one pound note in my brown wage packet was an event that was hard to process rationally, especially as the Lovells had kindly added a further one shilling and sixpence to cover my bus fares to and from Northfleet on the 496. I was officially a wage earner. Deliriously excited, instead of heading for the bus stop on that first Friday afternoon, I made my way to the book department at Bon Marche in the town centre where they didn’t close until six, and browsed among the poetry books. Eventually after a great deal of indecision I made my first purchase - an anthology containing my at the time favourites and costing four shillings and sixpence. On that delicious Friday life could hardly have been better. As time went on I discovered that my favourite reading matter could often be found in either one of the local second hand bookshops at greatly reduced prices which made me even happier.

Becoming a wage earner certainly improved both my self-esteem and my wardrobe. Not only did I become the proud owner of two orlon cardigans in pastel colours, at the same time I began to learn a little of the intricacies of the legal ups and downs in my home town. Most of the work the Lovells did was straightforward and boring but from time to time young Mr. Christopher was called upon to represent a minor criminal about to excitingly go through the local court system. These petty criminals fascinated me, especially if they sported DA haircuts and wore Teddy Boy suits with velvet collars. I twittered around them, hoping desperately to be noticed and perhaps asked out for one of the frothy topped cappuccinos just beginning to infiltrate local cafes, all now hastily renaming themselves from The Copper Kettle and Julie’s Teas to Daddy O’s and The Gondalier. Unfortunately I was generally ignored and thus forced to slouch hopefully across the blue formica tables alone whilst trying to appear slightly bored but interesting instead of anxious and optimistic.

My mother rapidly decided that I should share my current good fortune with my brother and donate two shillings of my weekly wage to him as pocket money. I did so resentfully. though he was of course, delighted and began also to haunt second hand shops for books on ornithology, his latest fixation.

When that eventful summer of 1955 was over I had made three trips on the fast train to Charing Cross to prowl the streets of London alone which was exhilarating, on one occasion not returning until nearly midnight which caused my mother huge distress. Furthermore when I returned to school I was of course even further ahead of my classmates in Miss Hart’s classes. She complimented me in front of the entire class pointing out that Most Girls Slide Back Over Summer and reiterating that I was a Born Office Worker and would undoubtedly Go Far in a work environment that supported a Big Pool, perhaps a Shipping Company or even an Insurance Company. Much despised Valerie Goldsack pointed out that as I had been working throughout the summer my progress was unsurprising but Miss Hart kindly ignored her which was thrilling because generally the staff admired Valerie because of her father being in the Police Force.

It was more than uplifting to be the object of praise but although my sudden flair for office work might advance me through the typing ranks at a faster rate than my peers in Class 2SC at Wombwell Hall I was only too aware that this startling ability in the commercial subjects unfortunately did not spread into other areas of the curriculum. The two Miss Smiths in the English Department for instance were most definitely not as impressed with my competence as I would have liked. My greatly adored Miss K. Smith had all too recently advised me that essays did not have to be quite as long as I seemed to imagine. For instance, my descriptive piece on London At Night, she said, was inclined to make even the most avid reader a little sleepy!

Saturday, 12 August 2017

Thoughts On The Great Roy Budd.....

It came to my attention only yesterday that the late, great Roy Budd’s symphonic score for the silent film The Phantom of the Opera is to be at last performed - at The London Coliseum on October 8th this year. Roy died suddenly in 1993 at the age of 46 just a couple of weeks before the organised screening at The Barbican. It has so far never been played in public but now, 24 years after his death, it will finally get its premiere. Roy was a brilliant musician and composer, well known for the film scores of movies like Get Carter, Flight of the Doves and many more. He was a self taught pianist and a child prodigy, first performing at the London Coliseum at the age of six.
He became a close friend during the nineteen sixties, supporting me through all the drama of a relationship break up and the subsequent trials and tribulations of being a solo mother at a time when single women with small children were frequently side lined in society. We dated on and off and a little half-heartedly over a number of years and he told me when he was 19 or 20 that our relationship should work well because he liked older women like me (I was 27 at the time and didn’t know whether to be flattered or not). On one momentous occasion he informed me he had to dump me for another woman – the woman was Pier Angeli so I was somewhat mollified. His brother Peter now says that later he dumped her also! There was a part of his character that remained delightfully naïve despite his extraordinary musical success. On an early trip to California he would ring in several times a week to excitedly fill me in on the rich and famous he had met.
I am delighted that Roy’s last great work is finally to be performed, yet the feeling is tinged with so much sadness that he was lost to us so young.

Thursday, 10 August 2017

Dimly Lit Corridors of the On Line World

This is I admit yet another rant about the inadequacies and shortcomings of The On Line World. As I have said before, and not even so very long ago, I am not a terribly good advocate for Political Correctness which clearly and immediately defines me as One Of The Enemy in some corners of Forums for Freedom of Speech. This is not to say that I go through life loudly proclaiming my Improper Beliefs to all and sundry because usually I keep them to myself. However, with an Election looming within a matter of weeks political matters are being discussed even in the Real & Absolute World and can at times be heard amongst strangers at bus stops and supermarket queues. For instance it is clear that for some, Ms Metiria Turei now sits very close indeed to Mother Teresa and The Virgin Mary and may at some stage be nominated for sainthood, despite her past abuses of the social welfare system and her present air of smug satisfaction and ongoing attitude of entitlement. I have trained myself to consider the fact that as a Mere Right Winger, I am incapable of discerning the Ultimate Good in this Hard Working Member of Parliament.

After all, it seems only yesterday that I was remonstrated with severely for unwisely leaping to the defence of the then Prime Minister, John Key saying that what I liked about him was his ability to be pleasant to those who castigated him and the fact that he did not get involved with name calling and mud slinging like most of his predecessors. In retrospect the voicing of such admiration now seems naïve considering how rapidly I was torn to shreds by those who clearly did not share my views. Within minutes I was called, a Bitch, a Troll, a Moron and advised to keep such comments to myself. As a relative newcomer to the Exciting On Line World I had not quite understood that it was only really safe to express views that others agreed with. Since then I have tried very hard not to Cause Offence and always couch my opinions in non threatening language, whilst assuring one and all that I am aware that my views will not be shared by everyone. Nevertheless the effect can still surprise – on one momentous occasion a bystander advising that he was: Well and truly over bitches like me who were into this `live and let live’ idea that allowed every moronic fucker to have an opinion.

You could say that the On Line World speaks glibly of Ethics, Principles and Common Decency but these basic codes of human interaction are only applied on the odd occasion. Just as the timid and insecure among us in the Real World become more confident from behind the safety of sunglasses, so those who habitually prowl the dim corridors of the Virtual World are more happily menacing to opponents from the even greater security of pseudonyms and anonymity. Sadly it appears that rather than providing venues for Freedom of Speech, on line forums become ever more the preserve of those whose greatest fear is that Ideas They Do Not Agree With might be expressed. As Josef Stalin pointed out in his wisdom – Ideas Are Far More Dangerous Things Than Guns.

Sunday, 30 July 2017

The Sad Passing Of Playing With Fire

I can barely remember my first Guy Fawkes Night but I have been told that it was in 1946 when a few rudimentary squibs and sparklers had once more become available. I stood with my father at the periphery of the blazing bonfire on the Old Green, tightly holding his hand and marveling at the way the flames licked into the darkness. Later he lit sparklers and balanced them on the back gate because I was much too fearful to hold them.

The War had been but an interruption to the established order of the rituals and traditions of the children of North Kent and by November 1946 the juvenile calendar was slowly and determinedly being restored to its natural rhythm. My Grandmother had the previous year unilaterally decided to resurrect A Pinch & A Punch For The First Of The Month and astonished me with what I saw as an unprovoked act of aggression on the first of June that year, the day before my birthday. I was somewhat mollified to find that I had license to respond with A Pinch & A Kick For Being So Quick! I imagine that today’s five year olds might be totally bewildered by this rather odd monthly practice.

Over the decades similar harmless customs seem to have been abandoned in favour of television, tablets and mobile telephones and this was certainly so by 1950 when most of England no longer indulged in Well Dressing and Whit Walks. Not everyone was content at the departure of familiar community customs. My mother and aunts spoke fondly of a time when Empire Day really mattered and all children were given flags and sang Land of Hope and Glory. Old Nan maintained that the streets of East London were decorated with bunting and stories were told about those who had displayed courage like Clive of India. By the time I was attending school the day was but a shadow of its former self with not a flag in sight.

On the other hand, as I grew older, Valentine’s Day still created a flurry of interest even in the very young. We were all anxious to receive a card from an anonymous admirer and at times were even forced to invent one. This was not a problem for me as I invented a great many scenarios in which I had a starring role but those who lived in families with a stricter regard for Truth might have struggled.
Back then mothers seemed generally adept at producing pancakes and no child I knew of would willingly have relinquished Shrove Tuesday, a festival that appeared to be unquestionably deep-rooted, yet has largely vanished without trace. Coming home after school to pancakes doused with sugar and lemon juice was a treat to be looked forward to for days in advance.

Ash Wednesday on the other hand, could be more readily discarded especially by those from non-religious households. April Fool’s Day was another matter altogether. The tricks, some more elaborate and amusing than others, could be planned weeks in advance particularly by boys. Chocolate Eggs to celebrate Eastertide were easily re-established after the war and became mandatory as they still are. There were times, disappointingly, when they were replaced with more mundane coloured eggs when chocolate proved too expensive. The rather more tedious Maypole dancing to celebrate May Day was disappearing by the time I was a teenager and I don’t remember too many tears at its demise although I now feel a twinge of sadness at its loss in the same way as I half-heartedly mourn the passing of Morris Dancers .

As far as Halloween is concerned, these days growing in popularity, we seemed to live in a country where this was celebrated by roughly half of the child population and ignored by the rest. In North Kent we knew it as All Saints Night but it was mostly disregarded because we were already concentrating on the imminent and much more exciting Guy Fawkes celebrations. These were centred on almost every spare piece of waste ground so the bomb sites that proliferated in and around Northfleet were ideal venues. There was always a bonfire on The Old Green, and another one in Buckingham Road. The Old Green fire was controlled by the Ribbins and Bardoe boys ably assisted by most of the local girls. Our Guy making was for several years dominated by Colin Bardoe, who had a twin called Alan and an older brother called Kenny, all boys with a certain amount of organizational skill. Colin was a resourceful and imaginative boy who aspired to hairdressing or choreography and longed to own a pony. He demonstrated a preference for the company of girls at a very young age and by the time we were nine several of us were already in love with him.

He structured the procedures involved for the celebration of Guy Fawkes with military precision. Old clothes were purloined from wherever we could find them and we sat as an admiring audience as he turned them into an Edwardian Gentleman with a little help from Molly Freeman and Pat Turner. For the ten days or so before the Fifth of November we toured the streets with the Guy in an old pram, accosting passers- by and knocking on doors in order to collect as much money as possible. At the same time as begging for A Penny For The Guy and hoping for sixpence we chanted lustily Guy, Guy, Stick Him In The Eye, Chuck Him On The Bonfire & There Let Him Die. I suppose these days you might describe this particularly persistent endeavour as Begging In The Streets and it would undoubtedly cause concern on Radio Talk Programmes and even local Councilors might be driven to comment.

The money collected and it was at times a reasonable sum certainly enough to make my mother purse her lips and Tut Tut, would then be spent on fireworks for the great day. Squibs, Bangers and Rockets, Roman Candles and Catherine Wheels the bigger the better. The fireworks themselves were usually chosen by a small committee headed by Alan and Colin and kept in their shed once they promised, Crossing Their Hearts and Hoping To Die, that they would not let a single one off in advance of the Fifth. But they did, of course, in order to Test Them. Those early winter evenings leading up to the Fifth were regularly punctuated with explosions and unlike today the Neighbours Never Complained though my mother, egged on by my Grandmother always pointed out that Them Bardoe Boys Couldn’t Be Trusted.

By the afternoon of the Fifth the excitement reached fever pitch as we all waited breathlessly for it to get dark enough for the ritual to start. And always we began far too early of course, with sparklers to entertain the very youngest, those who could barely walk and babies in push chairs. By eight o’clock the streets would be aflame with Catherine Wheels and Roman Candles and the sky fiery with rockets. For days the bonfire itself would have been growing ever more vast as families ransacked their cupboards and outhouses for anything combustible to add to it. At long last the Guy himself was hoisted to the top of the pyramid with the help of some of the fathers, the fire doused with paraffin and by nine the resulting blaze would send us into a frenzy. Colin would be leading the chant of Remember, Remember the Fifth of November, Gunpowder, Treason and Plot….. whilst Alan and Kenny fought over the last of the rockets.

On one memorable occasion an observing teenage son of a particularly hard wing Protestant family shocked my father by trying to teach us a jingle that began: A Penny Loaf to Feed the Pope, A Faggot of Sticks to Burn Him…. and was chased back into the depths of Springhead Road before he could further corrupt the Good Catholics amongst us.

In these more modern times of tame and bland Council Firework Displays It’s hard to convey the excitement of a Guy Fawkes celebration that has been essentially devised and choreographed by children themselves. Even when the last rocket had been launched and the initial ferocity of the fire had died down the excitement was not over. It was then that quantities of potatoes were thrown into the embers and Little Kathleen’s mother from the row of Cottages opposite The Old Green, usually grimly unapproachable and somehow worn down by the care of her one child plus what were rumoured to be Unnatural Marital Demands, always made enough toffee apples for everyone!

During those years there were strangely few warnings from our parents about the dangers of playing with explosives and local shops were more than happy to sell what are now seen as highly hazardous products to their youngest customers. The annual gala event was passively accepted even though the occasional child did meet with more than a trivial accident. Burns were considered routine as long as they did not require specialised medical treatment. On one occasion Sandra Ribbins was taken to go to the doctor on the sixth with a nasty burn to her hand and, even more alarming, Joan Bennet claimed that her cousin Muriel had a neighbour who almost lost the sight of one eye when a Catherine Wheel chose to spin off the garden gate. This may or may not have been completely accurate as Joan was prone to exaggeration and in any case such incidents though sobering were viewed pragmatically and seen as almost certain to happen from time to time when children and explosives coincide.

It could simply be that back in the 1940s and 1950s we were of necessity a more street-wise and aware group although I always saw myself as fearful and not one willing to take unnecessary risks. Certainly putting ourselves into the kind of situations that are heavily legislated against today, resulted in very few mishaps and we would have greeted the idea of a fireworks ban with uncomprehending astonishment. Health & Safety Requirements as we now know them were still just a seed of awareness in the ghostly intellect of grey shadow people yet to be born.

Wednesday, 26 July 2017

Black Hands & Smoky Tea

I’d quite forgotten the power of that oh so distinctive aroma of hops until Sylvia Hayward reminded me in yesterday’s comment. The smell is so characteristic, so unique that just one whiff will hurl the recipient directly into bygone Septembers in the Kentish countryside. How efficiently the sense of smell works on our most basic emotions to trigger memories from long ago. And the lost aroma of hops is particularly vibrant, bringing me always back to a pause in effort and exertion in those late summer afternoons when my Grandmother and Aunts clasped mugs of smoky tea produced by my mother with hands black from harvesting.

George Orwell on one of his Life Among The Poor projects in the 1930s maintained that Hop Picking was far from being a holiday and as far as remuneration was concerned, no worse employment existed in his opinion. He complained bitterly about his stained hands, his cracked fingers and made no comment concerning the idiosyncratic smell that is capable of bringing tears to the eyes of the rest of us. For we Ex-Hoppers, Going Hopping will remain always an experience so idyllic we struggle to find words adequate for the memories.

As for that aroma - one of my sons suggested new mown grass might be comparable – my neighbor felt the skin of a newly bathed baby was close to bliss. Neither of them, however, have ever Been Hopping!

Tuesday, 25 July 2017

Those Long Gone Days of Going Hopping........

As a family The Constants in all their diversity could definitely be described as enthusiastic if intermittent agricultural workers. This was primarily due to the influence of my maternal grandmother who was never happier than when she was harvesting the earth’s bounty. Digging for potatoes had an agreeable effect upon her general demeanour and the sight of orderly rows of peas and beans seemed to somehow bring out the best in her. This affection for the freedoms involved in part time Field Work had certainly been passed down to my mother and a number of her sisters so that they would as one descend upon the pea fields of North Kent with enthusiasm as soon as the season began. They signed up for Piecework with a strange mixture of gratitude and belligerence that was the hallmark of those who clearly saw themselves as the Independent Contractors of the Lower Orders of their day.

It has to be said that the family members were exceptionally reliable seasonal workers, applying themselves diligently throughout weather that was at times hardly indicative of Summer and at the same time largely enjoying the solid, earthy labour they turned their attention to. Old Nan maintained that you couldn’t beat a good stable week or two with the Pea Bines even though all the the bending played Merry Hell with her rheumatism. Ten days of Soft Fruits also earned her seal of approval and she was even capable of waxing lyrical over a yield of onions. However, all fruits and vegetables paled into insignificance when put alongside the annual even of Going Hopping and it mattered little that the hops themselves were not traditionally consumed until they had been turned into beer. My Grandmother could become passionate indeed about hops, so much so that each year in early May she would insist that we make a trip to the nearest Gardens to inspect the development of the young green shoots. She at the same time appropriated a reasonable quantity of them whilst we were there. This entire undertaking was carried out surreptitiously, arriving just before dusk when the farm workers were unlikely to be around and calling into The Plough on the way home for a celebratory glass or two of Pale Ale whilst we children ran riot outside and consumed packets of Smith’s Crisps. The young hops themselves would be soaked overnight in salt water and next day drained and simmered until tender to be eaten, tentatively in my case, with salt, pepper and a lump of butter. They tasted just a little bit like asparagus which of course none of us had ever sampled so we were not aware of the culinary connection at the time.

You could say that Old Nan never took her eye off the ball for a moment as far as hops were concerned. During the stringing season we would take a train trip or sometimes several buses, to Mereworth to Our Farm to observe the strangest of rural crafts for an afternoon’s entertainment. Armed with a picnic of bread and cheese and cold tea, we sat on the edge of the gardens to watch the stilt walkers traverse the narrow alleys of hops deftly stringing the plants overhead. Impressive as circus performers they made their measured progress along the poles, exhibiting the outlandish and bizarre dexterity needed to train the next stage of growth. In mid August the excitement mounted because now the hops were very nearly ready for picking and as many members of the family not otherwise engaged on more urgent business would be ready and willing to pick them. There were usually about twenty of us. My grandmother together with Motherless Little Violet, Aunt Martha with Pat, Aunt Maud with June and Desmond, Aunt Mag and Uncle Harold with young Harold, Leslie, Margaret and Ann, Freda with baby Susan, Uncle Edgar and wife with daughter Daphne, and of course my mother, brother and me – all of us could be found emerging from the pickers’ train at Maidstone station poised for six weeks of high adventure.

We went to the same farm each year at West Malling near Mereworth and lived in pickers’ huts, our family taking a third of those available so that it was almost like a tribal village. Later I was to learn that it was through the efforts of such bodies as the Society for Conveyance and Improved Lodging of Pickers that specially built huts had been constructed before the first world war. They were all the same and gave each family about 16 square feet to live in. Sacks and straw were available to make the bunks, constructed one above the other, more comfortable. At the end of each row of huts was a `cookhouse’ where huge fires were lit and the cooking done. The only toilet facilities were improvised long drops behind the huts where the queues were often so long that we children simply abandoned them and used the nearest bush. The farm with the best facilities was always said to be Whitbreads at Beltring where there was hot and cold water for showers, proper lavatories and even a twice weekly doctor’s surgery. However we were disinclined to go there because you had to Behave Properly and drunkenness and even swearing were misdemeanours and reported to the manager who recorded the transgressions in a black book. Three offences and you were expelled. This would clearly not have suited Old Nan one little bit.

I no longer remember the name of Our Farm but the memories surrounding the six weeks of rural freedom are still astonishingly vivid. In the 1940s a family of two adults and two children could earn between three and four pounds a week which meant a grand total of perhaps twenty or thirty pounds by the end of the season which was enough to make a great deal of difference to families such as ours. One of the conditions of employment was that the hoppers must remain for the full term of the harvest and to ensure this half the earnings were retained and paid as a lump sum at the end of September. Sometimes only tokens were distributed during the period of picking and these could be spent in the local village, both to purchase supplies from the shop and also, most particularly, supplies at the pub. The nearest pub was visited regularly by the adults on Friday and Saturday nights and by my uncles and my grandmother most nights. Sometimes we children would be sent off to purchase bottles of beer from the off license and these were consumed in the cookhouse after dinner by those who remained behind. Beer or no beer, sitting in the cookhouse watching the firelight dance and flicker after the meal was eaten is not easily forgotten. Nobody minded how long the children stayed up, and even when we did drift off to bed, we could hear the comforting refrains of Nellie Dean, My Old Dutch and Waiting At The Church, long into the night.

But it was up promptly at five the next morning when the day’s work began and being a child certainly did not automatically exclude you from the hard work; we were all expected to stand at the bins and pick despite the soporific effect of the plants. However, my mother and aunts were generally agreeable to letting us finish our contribution at noon each day when the only child still required to continue working, was Motherless Little Violet who, most unfortunately for her, was being brought up by Old Nan. My Grandmother was an exacting caregiver and consequently poor Little Violet despite her tender years sometimes picked all day and fell asleep exhausted at six pm each evening. But the afternoons were playtime for the rest of us and we roamed the local villages and woodland in a shabby, disparate group, gathering cobnuts and berries and daily becoming less and less popular with the villagers. The older boys were adept at purloining hop tokens from the adults and these we could exchange for treats at the village store. Even once the war was officially over the return of treats such as ice cream and sweets was slow but strange items were on sale specifically to attract the young – Liquorice Wood for example, and Locust Beans and other delicacies that would no doubt cause most of us to shudder these days. I distinctly recall that the Locust Beans were full of little maggots but I knocked them back with abandon despite that.

As the season progressed, more and more signs would appear outside pubs and businesses – No Hoppers, No Gypsies, at which time my cousin Margaret would be sent in to make the treat purchases because she was the oldest girl, had a nice smile and spoke politely. She also, somehow or other always managed to look cleaner and tidier than the rest of us. One year Margaret had acquired a pair of jodhpurs from the daughter of one of Uncle Harold’s mates who worked at the Crayford dog track, and she wore them daily over the picking period, ensuring a gracious reception at the village store. Somehow or other she managed to ignore the jeering of a group of teenage boys from the East End enquiring as to the location of her horse. I was filled with admiration for her composure.

Each year without fail, the story of my mother’s unconventional entry into the world as a somewhat premature infant, was retold by my grandmother, and we all became familiar with the details. That she had Come Early and was such a tiny little thing, no bigger than a milk jug, that she had been Born in a Caul that had been sold to a sailor a day or two later, for luck because as everybody knew, the owner of a Caul would never die by drowning. And that the trauma of the sudden birth Put Paid to Picking for the rest of the day though the new mother was Fit As a Fiddle again the next.

And at this stage my Grandmother, not generally known for her sentiment, could actually be seen to have a tear or two in her eye. There could be no doubting that she was never happier than in the hop gardens with her family all around her, telling tales of yesteryear as she deftly nipped the buds from garlands of bine into the bin. We, a larger group by far than those around us, always managed to pick more than other families moving rapidly enough along the drifts, or alleyways of plants, day after day to make the tally men wary and other pickers resentful. But hostility never worried Nan because she said Bugger The Lot of Them and it was just Bleedin’ Jealousy that was their problem.

Invariably as the weeks progressed there would be growing discord amongst the Kentish groups and the large East-End families, especially once they were joined at the weekends by husbands and brothers. Once or twice fights broke out and on one scandalous occasion Old Nan ripped the hooped ear ring out of a woman’s ear, tearing the ear lobe so badly that she had to be treated at the Hoppers’ Hospital at Five Oak Green. The matter was also reported to the Police and the following morning a Constable searched us out in the Gardens and took a statement and gave a Warning about being Charged. The whispering and rumour that swept through the pickers on this occasion was astonishing and managed to subdue my Grandmother for several days.

It was in the hop gardens at Mereworth that I first began to recognise that there was something distinctly different about our family. As I grew older and more street wise this knowledge established itself firmly into what was clearly evident. We were not just Working Class Poor; we were certainly not part of the Respectable Working Class Poor. We were not respectable or reputable in any way. Not a single one of us was highly regarded or well thought of. We were the very opposite of Decent, Good and Upright. As a bunch we were undoubtedly untrustworthy, unreliable and devious. When we cheerfully appeared, Mob-Handed into any situation it was not long before mutterings of Riff Raff and even Diddicais tripped from the tongues of the more traditionally Decent Poor.

Despite our undoubted position at the very Bottom of the Heap, over those post war years we picked with both fervour and fortitude . The six week season also served as a time of familial bonding when we cousins, at each other’s throats for the rest of the year, mostly rubbed along together with an unusual degree of tolerance. The only young Constants conspicuous by their absence from these annual events were Tommy, Sandra and Paul, who belonged to Aunt Rose and were never allowed to join us. This was because Aunt Rose had the misfortune to be married to Uncle Mervyn who was Welsh and a serving officer in the Air Force and this caused him to be Up His Own Arse. Even Aunt Mag agreed that he was a Snotty Nosed Git and my grandmother maintained he was raising his children to be Little Tight Arses. They were to be pitied having a father who denied them a free six week break in the country every year but then Mervyn, on top of believing himself to be better than the next man, was tight fisted - so mean he wouldn’t Give His Shit To The Crows.

We went into collective mourning in the early 1950s when the ritual Country Holiday became a thing of the past as the majority of farms quite suddenly became totally mechanised. I was about thirteen or fourteen years old when we completed our final picking season. But for several years afterwards my Grandmother and aunts would regularly take trips into the local countryside, vainly visiting farms to make hopeful enquiries as to whether pickers were needed. The culture and language of Going Hopping then sank almost without trace. And terms such as Bagsters, Bines, Bookers, Drifts, Footshoe Money, Hop Dogs, Hop Tokens, Pokes, Stringers and Tally Sticks, disappeared from the vocabulary completely and in fact only in more recent years have been resurrected in the form of information in Museums for the instruction and edification of schoolchildren on day trips. The Oast Houses are still there and have now been turned into cottages for those with sufficient financial resources to afford them. Their presence is oddly comforting because when I drove the Kentish lanes a year ago they seemed to be all that remained of the Going Hopping Tradition.

Thursday, 13 July 2017

A Decent Friendship at Wombwell Hall

I was never very good at making friends as I have made previous comment upon. It can be quite demoralising to invariably be standing at the outer edge of cohesive playground groups, at best tolerated but never accepted. That’s not to say that I was entirely friendless because that simply wasn’t true but generally those who were comfortable with me were not entirely accepted themselves. This fact was not overlooked by my mother who many years later told me that it was because I had been a Quarrelsome Child.

In my last year at St Botolph’s Primary School I became half friendly with Pearl Banfield, who lived at the top of York Road and whose mother was particular regarding those with whom her children associated. It was clear she was anxious about me and that was possibly because of Aunt Freda and the black market stockings that were never delivered in 1943. She became even more exacting after I wrote the poison pen letter when Pearl passed the eleven plus and I didn’t. Unsurprisingly that really put the cat among the pigeons and naturally enough Pearl was to have nothing further to do with me.

I wasn’t too upset by this because I had taken the precaution of becoming half friendly with Margaret Snelling who lived close to Northfleet Station and who let me have rides on her new bike and even invited me to her eleventh birthday party. Our family did not go in for celebrating birthdays and I was not familiar with the protocols. I rather blotted my copy book by not quite realising that guests were expected to be bearers of gifts and it was humiliating to overhear Margaret’s grandmother ask her mother who the strange little girl was who’d come without one. Luckily, Margaret, busy unwrapping jelly babies, hair slides and coloured pencils, didn’t appear to notice this exchange. Our friendship declined anyway when we transferred to the local secondary modern school and found ourselves in different Streams. I had been placed, somewhat surprisingly considering my abject 11 plus failure, in the A Stream. Margaret was a B Stream Girl even though she was much better than me in all aspects of Arithmetic even long division. I thought a mistake had been made and in the first week or two worried a great deal about Arithmetic and how soon it would be before it was discovered that I had not grasped the basics in this subject. I might even have approached the Headmistress, one Miss Dennis, if only she had not chosen to have her office beyond reach in the Senior School which was situated rather inconveniently at least half a mile away.

Miss Dennis had silver hair and pale blue eyes and wore pale blue twin sets and sensible shoes. She held an assembly in the Junior School once a week and talked about Being Happy at Work and Play and Striving to Do One’s Best At All Times. Her Tuesday morning homilies were exceedingly dull and a bit like listening to Father O`Connor’s Sunday sermons.

Molly from number 31, who was in the year ahead of me had been highly excited when she first went to Northfleet Girls’ Secondary Modern and said it was exactly like being at boarding school except you didn’t of course sleep there. You were allocated Houses, she told me and she was a Dame Laura Knight girl and for certain events like Games for instance, you wore a coloured sash that indicated which House you represented. Dame Laura sashes were blue. There were Prefects who stood in the corridors and penalised students for not walking properly or being too talkative and she was very much hoping to become one. I found myself in Helen Keller House and wore a yellow sash and knew for sure I was not destined to ever become a Prefect.

The two years at Northfleet Girls’ were remarkably uneventful. The only spike of interest was when Mrs Rowntree the History teacher proposed that we each make a reproduction of the Bayeaux Tapestry. However, it turned out to be merely a suggestion and I was the only one who acted upon it which caused a great deal of merriment among the group of twelve year olds who were at that time my loose associates. Shirley Monroe even asked me if I was trying to become a Teacher’s Pet which I vehemently denied. Even the English classes were tedious and I must have somehow coped with Arithmetic, probably by trying hard not to draw attention to myself.

I don’t recall how it happened but somehow or other I was selected for a possible place at Wombwell Hall. I say possible because my entry depended upon an interview with the Headmistress, Miss Fuller. The idea of Wombwell Hall was infinitely more exciting than anything that had gone before and from the moment I first stepped inside the old house it wrapped itself around me and I fell deeply in love with the place. To me the school, humble technical college though it was, had a solid reality about it and seemed to be a Real Place of Learning with staff that were decidedly more dedicated than I was accustomed to and one or two of them ultimately proving to be quite inspirational.

My mother was also impressed and told me that if I Played My Cards Right I might find it was the kind of place where Really Decent Friends could be made, not Fly by Nighters like Pearl for example. I was wholeheartedly in favour of Decent Friends and vowed to become a much friendlier person, accommodating and co-operative in order to attract the exceptional human beings who would undoubtedly change my life for the better.

I met Yvonne from Swanscombe on Day One, a tidy and confident girl wearing a hand knitted dark green cardigan almost a mirror image of my own, rather than the costly regulation version from the Uniform Shop in Gravesend. She also sported a well worn brown leather satchel rather too large for someone of her small stature. We stood side by side at the first Assembly and she told me that she was delighted to be given what she called This Important Chance because her father had died a year or two before and he had really cared about her education. She was keen to become a copy typist. I could have hugged her because suddenly, here before me was another Fatherless Girl, and very likely a Really Decent one. I decided there was already an important link between us and with a modicum of luck in no time at all we could be Best Friends. At last My Cards had been Played Right!
We sat together throughout that day and in fact for the whole of the first week. Yvonne even shared her morning break ginger biscuits with me and told me the details of the workplace accident that had taken the life of her father and how her mother was now really struggling to ensure that she and her younger sister, Doreen, were raised Properly. In fact Yvonne said things that made me positively glow with a quiet serenity even though there were aspects of her personality that were just a tiny bit tedious. It was this little corner of tiresomeness that led to me being almost relieved when a third girl was instructed to join us in the Friday Science Experiment. Valerie Goldsack who had golden hair to match her golden name sat between us and had a lot to say for herself because her father was a Detective Inspector in the local Police Force.

At the conclusion of the science class to our delight we found that our little trio had won the Prize of The Day for our work which was primarily because Valerie had already completed the experiment at her previous school. Nevertheless we were gratified by our success and unlikely though it was I even began to wonder if I might have an aptitude for science as I did not seem to have an aptitude for anything else. The prize was a small bar of Frys’ Mint Chocolate each. As we got ready to go home I made rapid work of demolishing the unexpected sweet treat. Yvonne ate half of hers and said she would save the rest for her sister. Valerie, looking disapprovingly at me as I discarded the blue and silver wrapping in the waste paper basket, said she was saving all of hers for Daddy because Daddy really liked Frys’ Mint Chocolate. Apparently it was his favourite.

I was unsettled on Monday morning when Yvonne suggested we invite golden haired Valerie to join us at morning break. By Wednesday I became further perturbed when Valerie produced her mother’s fairy cakes to supplement the ginger biscuits. To my later humiliation I even protested, tearful and infantile and causing the now hated Golden One much amusement. By Friday they were sitting together in class, sharing secrets and laughing at each other’s jokes. Oh how rapidly I had been relegated to the extreme outer rim of what was to have been my first Decent Friendship. Subsequently it also transpired that I had been quite wrong about having an aptitude for science.