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Saturday, 24 June 2017

The Righting Of Wrongs

In the years before my brother’s sudden death last year we had, strangely enough, got on better than ever before. When we were growing up we had a relationship that hovered always between love and hate and we were most of the time exceptionally resentful of one another. It’s probably much the same for most siblings. Perhaps it was his sudden candid confession regarding the depth of his childhood despair over various aspects of his upbringing that caused us to cast aside distrust and replace it with filial affection. The revelation came perhaps fifteen years ago and surprised me with its intensity, forcing me to examine the past more closely than before.

I was six and three quarters when my brother was born and from the moment of his entrance into the grimy Northfleet community I resented him with an astonishing level of bitterness. Those were the days when older female siblings were routinely placed in charge of the newest family members and it was clear that our family was not going to differ in this respect. By the time I had reached my seventh birthday I was Baby Minder in Chief, regularly directed to walking and pram rocking duties after school. Most older sisters quite enjoyed these duties and in fact if you didn’t have your own resident infant it was quite acceptable to borrow one from a neighbour, females dressed in pink being the most desirable especially those with cutting edge names like Cheryl-Anne or Sharon-Louise.

My father was quite naturally immensely proud of my brother and could love him in a way that he clearly found difficult with me. He was eager for him to grow bigger and stronger so that he could introduce him to the delights of all those things I found abhorrent such as funfairs and football matches. His undisguised excited anticipation of the future father-son relationship filled me with unease and anxiety and perhaps it was then that I first began to nurture the idea of swapping the unfortunate boy for a more acceptable sibling.

Brenda Stewart’s mother had given birth to a baby a day or two after we took delivery of Bernard but hers was a girl called Judy. How I envied Brenda. If we had to have a baby at all then why couldn’t it be a girl? In fact Brenda and I discussed this very situation fairly regularly as she was now detailed on similar after school pram duties to myself. She even elaborated on the matter of her family’s desire for a male child saying they were going to call him Richard if he had eventuated as hoped. I recall thinking idly that if fate bestowed our Bernard upon them it probably wouldn’t be too much of an upheaval for him to have his name changed and overall the loss of him wouldn’t be the end of the world because we would still be able to see him from time to time.

I can’t recall with any clarity when I first proposed the baby swap idea but within a day or two I do know that Brenda had enthusiastically agreed and the two sleeping infants were duly switched. Several hours passed before a furious Mrs Stewart turned up at our door angrily demanding the return of her Judy and darkly advising my shocked mother that there was something not quite right about me because I was certainly Old Enough to Know Better! When my father returned from work I was soundly thrashed for this misdemeanour, the first of many such beatings concerning wrongs done to my brother after which I would bear the bruises for a fortnight. I was also sent to bed at six pm without any tea for a week which I considered most unfair. I thought then, and even now, that the beating itself should have been punishment enough. However, it seemed unwise to attempt to debate this at the time and in those days harsh reprisals often followed quite minor misdeeds, so I lay in bed plotting revenge whilst other children played outside in the street and as it grew dark were called home one by one to their tea time jam sandwiches.

Bernard of course had been far too young for the Day When He Was Swapped to have any effect upon his psyche although in recent years he waxed lyrical and lengthily upon the distress caused when I did things like sabotaging the flight path of his yellow plastic helicopter. Being responsible for his arm being detached from its socket when he was two did not please him either.
It was to be years before I would uncover the truths of his own transgressions, the various acts of thievery, including absconding at the age of thirteen with our mother’s Christmas savings in order to buy a pair of binoculars for more efficient bird watching and selling my entire record collection to a second hand shop in Gravesend for some other ornithology connected venture. Somehow or other our mother managed to cover up this behaviour but failed to be able to when he ran off with the week’s takings from a local butcher’s shop, a more serious theft that progressed into violence and eventually resulted in a Court Appearance though not before he had arrived distressed and distraught on my doorstep in West London in search of protection.

It has to be admitted that neither of us were the kind of progeny a parent could be proud of although had she lived long enough I think our mother would have eventually been proud of Bernard. She would have taken a great deal of pleasure in the fact that finally he became the kind of father that he longed to have himself. She would have undoubtedly been astounded by the astonishing amount of money he was able to make that allowed him to turn all his childhood dreams into reality. She would have taken pride in his unfailing generosity and the depth of his love and concern for others. And she would have also perhaps felt a twinge of concern for the streak of gullibility that to the end of his life remained present in his demeanour making it always possible for him to be deceived by those closest to him.

Monday, 12 June 2017

A Blissful Burgeoning of Bathrooms


Old Mr Bassant from next door said that the houses in York Road and the surrounding streets were more than a hundred and ten years old and would have long been Condemned if it hadn’t been for The War. I was first aware of this assertion as early as 1943 when I had no idea what being Condemned meant so I had to ask around and someone said it meant they should have been pulled down long ago. This was a scary thought at the time because as a pre-schooler I was very satisfied with number twenty eight where the only available water was from the single scullery tap and definitely cold, and where what Old Nan called The Privy and we called The Lav was outside in what she called The Yard and we called The Garden. In order to become dissatisfied I had to get just a little bit older and more aware of the bathroom facilities in the council houses my cousins lived in up in Crayford.

As far as my grandmother was concerned our York Road house with its very reasonable rent of seven shillings a week was a step up from her own childhood home in the crowded Closed Court in Bethnal Green with shared pump and Privy in the tiny inner yard and where the only access was by means of a narrow tunnel less than three feet wide. It was more than evident that general hygiene was an even greater challenge back then than for us in the more innovative nineteen forties with our very own galvanised bath hanging on the wall and a reliable supply of fresh, cold water in our scullery. According to Old Nan these were steps forward simply undreamed of back in the late nineteenth century when if you wanted to get yourself clean for a special occasion it meant a trip to the Bath House which cost money and not to get her started on that subject.

Despite the giant steps forward however, maintaining standards of personal cleanliness was not straightforward by any means. Saturday night was always bath night and it was then our copper would be filled and a fire lit under it so that enough water could be boiled for the occasion, supplemented by pots and kettles on the stove. Naturally enough everyone bathed in the same water, starting with the children which meant that the experience was both grimy and decidedly cool as the evening wore on and any adult was game enough to have a turn. As children our hair was washed whilst we were in the bath but I have a feeling that my mother washed hers in the stone scullery sink with jugs of warm water and always with the aid of Amami Shampoo for Fair Hair. As we all had dark hair her choice of shampoo was confusing. Sunlight soap was used in the bath as in our house it was deemed most extravagant to bathe with the aid of any toilet soap let alone Pears so I could never boast of Preparing To Be A Beautiful Lady.

Keeping clean was time consuming and between baths I don’t remember anything other than brief face and hands washing known as a Lick and a Promise although my mother definitely admired those who went in for more regular cleanliness rituals. She frequently commented on the practice of a neighbour, one Mrs Cecily Leighton who she knew for a fact had a lovely wash every day and never missed come rain or shine. This daily wash was carried out after dinner in the early afternoon and you could apparently see she had washed her neck without fail each time and what’s more she was in the habit of putting on lovely clean blouses.

By the time I was seven or eight years old and reading a great many Enid Blyton books I was definitely keen on the idea of proper bathrooms and indoor lavatories. Just imagine being able to run a warm bath whenever you fancied it. Or the bliss of being able to use the toilet without putting on raincoat and wellington boots if it was raining. And these aspirations were not entirely due to Enid Blyton because as I have already mentioned there were the cousins, all of whom now seeming to have found themselves living in houses that boasted the most desirable facilities. Even my mother whose bathroom ambitions were not nearly as pronounced as my own was heard to make certain comments such as that her sister Mag could be a Dirty Cow at times and you only had to look at the state of that lovely new inside lavatory all stained for want of a bit of bleach. I stored the bleach information for future use and vowed that I would never be such a Dirty Cow as my aunt.

My brother, six and a half years younger than me, was to become even more preoccupied with the delights of indoor plumbing but years were to pass before I quite understood this. As he moved towards the much coveted world of the property owner Bernard began to show a greater and greater interest in sanitary arrangements, his favourite room of any house he was to live in clearly being the bathroom. As time progressed his bathrooms grew both in number and in extravagance sporting tiling techniques that the fussiest of Romans would have been envious of and shower arrangements so complex that the uninitiated hesitated before entering them. He firmly maintained that this passion for all matters sanitary had come about because as a child he was convinced he smelled bad enough for others to avoid him. Other children, he said, called him Stink Bum. This may or may not have been entirely true because Bernard also grew ever more flexible with truth.

If it was true it had probably originated because of his persistent bed wetting which although not all that unusual in boys, went on far longer than anyone expected it too. Bernard was still wetting the bed as he approached his sixteenth birthday and the bedsheets were hung out of the upper back window on a daily basis obvious to all and causing him a great deal of embarrassment. The side effects of this unfortunate habit of enuresis were rather more than a weekly bath in the scullery could hope to cope with. Our mother was concerned enough by the time he was fourteen to attempt to persuade him to avoid all liquids after midday and on one occasion brought the subject up with Dr Outred who was not able to offer a great deal of hope. Old Nan on the other hand as usual had a positive suggestion which rather surprisingly involved matrimony. Getting Him Married, she maintained, would put a stop to all that Pissing the Bed Malarkey before you could say Bob’s Your Uncle or Fanny’s Your Aunt. I couldn’t help wondering what would happen if he urinated over his new wife but could not think of a delicate way of putting the possibility so I remained silent.

He was in fact very much married and indeed a father by the time he was eighteen and I was never quite game enough to make further enquiry regarding the bed wetting. On the other hand the proliferation of most
desirable bathrooms that permeated his life were obviously an indication of something significant.

Saturday, 3 June 2017

MAY DAY & A BAD CASE OF THE DROPSY.....

When I started school in September 1945 the headmaster at St Botolph’s was Mr Tilley and I have no memory of him whatsoever. Once I recovered from the initial trauma of being abandoned without explanation, which was the normal practice for those embarking upon their education in those days I quite enjoyed school, finding the teachers, the buildings, playgrounds, the church and adjacent churchyard a welcome change from the confines of York Road where my mother’s word was Law. At school there was a range of other adults who had power and influence that I soon realised in many ways superseded my mother’s. She had a love-hate relationship with both School and Church, had been treated badly by the zealous Sisters of Crayford because of constant absenteeism and it was undoubtedly these memories that led to me being enrolled in an Anglican school, an act that was to greatly perturb my rather more devout father.

I recall my first teachers well and with a certain amount of affection – Miss Honour, Mrs Johnson, Mrs Allen and Miss Biggs. Then came Mr Clark whose pupils without exception loved him dearly. The boys were particularly intrigued that he had been a fighter pilot during the war and was shot down and became a POW. This information did not emotionally move the girls nearly as much of course.

It was whilst I was in Mr Clark’s class, Year Five, that I first became aware of the new headmaster, the tyrannical Mr Cook who, towards the end of the year and quite out of the blue began to teach us Arithmetic on Friday afternoons. Academically I was in no way outstanding, although this was a fact my ever hopeful father found difficult to process, and Arithmetic was definitely my weakest subject. It was bad enough trying to master fractions and long division under the kindly guidance of Mr Clark and all but impossible beneath the direction of the terrifying Mr Cook. Friday afternoons had formerly been a serene and peaceful time devoted to ideas and to books. Mr Clark discussed with us all manner of interesting ideas such as the rights and wrongs of cannibalism and whether or not children would ever be allowed to vote and some of us were bored and were allowed to doodle or fall asleep. It was a time when we were introduced to poetry – The Lady of Shallot, Daffodils, The Destruction of Sennacherib and were urged to read the Myths of Ancient Greece and Rome. For these reasons I have never forgotten Mr Clark.

I have never forgotten Mr Cook either but for quite different reasons because his maths classes were most alarming, particularly for the boys and it was they who were the main focus of his sadism. Most of the time we girls were left to be horrified observers as he pulled students from behind desks by their ears, closed desk lids onto fingers with his feet, all the time screaming at the unfortunates in the front row, his face turning puce and the veins in his neck bulging. Largely these brutal episodes were heralded simply by an unlucky ten year old failing to understand some aspect of multiplication. Simply witnessing these Friday afternoon rages firmed up my dislike of Mathematics in all its forms and turned it into a fully-fledged phobia. My York Road neighbour, Pearl Banfield was so terrified that on two occasions she fainted at the beginning of the class and henceforth her mother invariably collected her on Friday lunchtimes and she simply disappeared for the afternoon. I thought this was a splendid idea but my own mother was not as kindly and understanding as Pearl’s and just advised I should Keep My Head Down.

Mr Cook had clearly arrived at St Botolph’s intending to Make A Difference. This turned out not to be simply limited to mathematical outcomes which in retrospect I assume had something to do with the eleven plus examination we were to take the following year, but spread into other areas also. One of his initial ideas, which had to be abandoned because of lack of interest, was implementing Saturday Evening Socials. These took place on a monthly basis and the entire staff was required to attend, Mr Clark having the job of amusing those children who because of baby-sitting problems were forced to accompany their parents. The huge and rumbling partition in the Infants’ Department was rolled back for the occasion and parents were served cups of tea and sponge cake that Mrs. Johnson and Mrs Allen had been ordered to provide. The socials were glacial occasions where those families gutsy enough to attend showed deference to Mr Cook and complimented him on the Huge Difference he was making to our learning.

I found the unfamiliar intimacy between home and school exciting and I remember utilising the only occasion on which my parents attended to steal a poetry book from our classroom bookshelf, stuffing it down my knickers and spending the rest of the evening and the walk home in great discomfort. I then worried for weeks that it might have been missed.

Another one of Mr Cook’s brilliant ideas was celebrating May Day with Maypole dancing and May Dolls. We were informed of this at the conclusion of one of the disturbing Maths classes whilst Billy Elliot having drawn attention to himself by not knowing immediately what the required answer to One Fifth Of One Hundred was, nursed his injured fingers beneath his armpit and tried hard to stifle his tears. Mothers of the girls, we were told as the cold and darkly snake like eyes of the Headmaster examined each of our respectfully bent female heads, were to each make a May Doll by the end of the month. Jacqueline Haskell, whose mother was a shorthand typist and occasionally helped out in the school office ventured to enquire in a very small voice indeed what a May Doll actually was. The rest of us exchanged glances, astonished at her daring. A short explanation was given but I was so absorbed in watching the pulse in the Headmaster’s neck that the details escaped me.

I walked home with Pearl who was crying quietly and saying that her mother would not have time to make a May Doll by the end of the month. I comforted her with the fact that it was more likely than not that my mother would find herself in the same position. Now, each afternoon, we were taken to the park by the station, to practice Maypole dancing under the direction of Mr Clark with help from Mrs Haskell and one other mother keen to become involved. We were told that for the event itself we would wear brightly coloured sashes which was relief because there had been a rumour that it would involve compulsory white dresses for the girls.

By the end of April, despite a great deal of negative advice from my grandmother that made me sick with terror because it included suggestions for Going Round That Bleeding School and Cleaning That Silly Bugger Headmaster Rotten, I had a May Doll made from an old sock with button eyes and yellow woollen plaited hair. Pearl’s doll was dressed in a skirt of parachute silk with a matching bonnet and so beautiful it was carried to and from school in a shoe box. Only poor little Maureen Dunstan who had seven siblings and wore clothes that my mother said were Shameful, was without a doll and she sobbed quietly whilst the rest of us looked disapprovingly in her direction. Jacqueline even asked whether she would be allowed to dance at all in her doll-less state.

We were advised that all mothers and grandparents were expected to attend the Maypole Dancing. This was extremely perturbing as my greatest area of shame was having the kind of grandmother who had never been known to bake a birthday cake or in fact show the slightest bit of love and affection to her grandchildren and who, to add insult to injury, was inclined towards the most unacceptable turn of phrase.

On 30th April when Mr Cook demanded confirmation of the family members who would be attending the ceremony I heard Jennifer Berryman say that her grandmother had said sorry, she would have loved to but she was too ill with The Dropsy. Wendy Selves said her grandmother lived too far away in Margate. Feeling more confident now I raised my hand and said my grandmother was also too ill with The Dropsy, almost dead with it in fact.

There were fewer spectators than expected at the May Day Event which did not please Mr Cook but I was relieved that my mother was present and wearing the new hat my father had given her at Christmastime. Pearl’s mother was wearing a smart blue two piece costume and a velvet hat shaped like a shell with a piece of net across the front. Both her grandmothers were there! My mother sniffed and said that was because the Banfields were Smarmy but she said it quietly and nobody else heard her. I knew that had she been present Old Nan would have said much worse and it was a very good thing she had such a bad case of The Dropsy.

Thursday, 25 May 2017

Glorious Food of the 1940s & 1950s

It’s odd to think that ordinary run-of-the-mill Roast Chicken was once so revered that for us, and for most of our neighbours, it was Christmas Dinner, and everybody knows Christmas Dinner is the most special meal of the year. This was back in 1947 or 1948 when we, along with many others, kept fowl in the backyard, a belligerent rooster and a harem of hens. The Bassents next door kept Rabbits and fattened them for eating which I didn’t like to think about too much and occasionally, particularly on allotments, some people kept pigs. As the years progressed the much esteemed Roast Fowl lost its place at the top of the pyramid of prized foods and simply became a Sunday dinner. At the same time families like The Scutts of Springhead Road, who my mother regarded as decidedly Uppity, had already announced they were having Turkey for Christmas! So the formerly greatly favoured bird slid inexorably downwards, its demise coinciding with the Chicken Inn chain opening in the late 1950s. One by one all my Aunts led by Old Nan in her best hat and coat boarded the Saturday 11.10 Express to Charing Cross specifically for the thrill of a Chicken Dinner in Leicester Square at 3/3d apiece. It was several months before my mother could be persuaded to join them because generally speaking she didn’t hold with London, mostly because of the prices but by 1958 she had to admit that what with chicken still being quite dear in Gravesend, and when you added in the cost and the palaver of the cooking of it, an occasional 3/3d was not too steep. In any case whichever way you looked at it you had to admit it was a Day Out and everyone needed a Day Out from time to time and apart from all that, depending on what you ordered you could find an entire Chicken Leg on your plate together with roast potatoes, peas and gravy so you couldn’t complain. These days the bird has simply settled into becoming a midweek dinner choice whether roasted, poached or more imaginatively turned into a curry and the Chicken Inn chain is long gone.

Children of the late 1940s were accustomed to a diet that has largely disappeared and we were totally ignorant of foods that today’s child is completely familiar with. None of us had the slightest clue as to what a Kebab might be and although we might have heard of Pizza and perhaps even associated it with Italy that was as far as it went. Wimpy Bars were still firmly in the future along with Golden Egg restaurants and Chinese Takeaways. We would have been quite confused by a Big Mac, possibly associating it with some kind of rainwear. The only takeaway meal we were completely at ease with was Fish & Chips, an option that had been around since the middle of the nineteenth century. My mother who was born in 1908 remembered Fish & Chips as an occasional treat before WW1 and her own mother, spoke of the Fish & Chips in Bethnal Green with almost a tear in her eye. According to my Aunts, we who were growing up in the 1940s were a great deal better off food-wise than they who had been born back in Late Edwardian England. As a group they did not always agree with regard to matters concerning the past but as far as food was concerned they were for once in total accord. Their parents being afflicted with drunkenness, they were forced to become accustomed to hunger pains.

Fashions in food together with the availability of some items dictate that the culinary experiences of each generation will differ. For instance delicacies chosen to impress and prepared in advance of a Saturday visit by relatives would undoubtedly be a mystery to those born after 1960. Nevertheless the memory of the forward planning for such delights as Brawn or Jellied Eels is still vivid to me.

Old Nan always referred to Brawn as Head Cheese but of course it bore little resemblance to any kind of cheese I was familiar with. Usually I was sent to the butcher to order the pig’s head a few days in advance and told not to forget to ask him to split it. For Saturday eating I would be sent back to collect it before school on Thursday. Then it would be squashed into the biggest cauldron we possessed along with salt, onion and carrots and simmered on the scullery stove all day until the water was disgustingly gelatinous and as my cousin Pat observed, just like snot when you’ve got a really bad cold. By teatime the gas would have been turned off, all corners of the house would smell of boiled pig and the cauldron contents left to cool enough for the remains of the head to be pulled forth after tea and the meat patiently picked from the bones. I usually tried to dodge any assistance with this even if it meant electing to go to bed earlier than usual. By Friday evening both the meat and the liquid it had simmered in would be distributed among a number of receptacles and would long have set into typically unstable Brawn-like consistency, all ready to be consumed next day by the visiting relatives along with vinegar and bread and margarine, always referred to as bread and butter. Nothing horrified me more than having to sample it but the adults did so with enthusiasm and I would simply be sent to the off licence for bottles of Light Ale to accompany it.

I was less unsettled by Jellied Eels with the possible exception of the first part of the preparation. Everybody knew that to do the job properly you had to buy the eels not just fresh but definitely alive. We usually bought ours in Northfleet High Street after school and carried them home threshing around at the bottom of a shopping basket. I dreaded their approaching slaughter, not because I felt particularly concerned for their lives but because after chopping the bits carried on wriggling. Once an almost whole eel escaped before execution and had to be salvaged from beneath the copper while its tail still fidgeted on the table.

The squirming pieces were dropped into boiling water with salt, diced onion and bay-leaves and simmered until after tea when they were left to cool and ultimately served in much the same manner as the Brawn. By Saturday I would have put the demise of the unfortunate creatures aside enough to sample a small helping. My Grandmother was particularly fond of them and without fail every time she ate them told the story of how she was once friendly with Tubby Isaacs of Aldgate when he first opened his famous stall just after the First War and how he had passed it on to his nephew Solly in 1939 before the Second War and ran off to America in case the Germans won. Nobody could make Jellied Eels like Tubby Isaacs she maintained. And maybe she was right because I wasn’t overly fond of my mother’s version but then as a child I was somewhat choosy about all food, seafood in particular, favouring shrimps over everything else available at the time.

On Sunday afternoons the Shrimp Man trundled through the local streets with his pushcart, sometimes offering crabs along with the shrimps, cockles, and whelks all sold by the half pint or pint. If my mother felt the budget didn’t run to shrimps I was happy to settle for cockles but never whelks. We only ever bought half a pint of shrimps for me and my brother but as my parents always favoured whelks anyway, they usually bought a pint or two to share between them. Occasionally as a special treat we might have a crab.

Another food hawker was the Pease Pudding & Faggots man who usually came on a Friday or Saturday but wasn’t as reliable as the Shrimp Man. I was particularly fond of Pease Pudding which appeared to be quite harmlessly made from split yellow peas but not quite as keen on the Faggots especially after I once witnessed my Aunt Martha making them out of very fatty bits of pork belly and an evil smelling pig liver. She said she didn’t hold with buying them off the street because you didn’t know what was in them. There didn’t seem to be an appropriate response to that comment but I didn’t forget it.

The gastronomic highlight of our week was Sunday dinner which would always consist of a piece of Lamb or Beef together with roast potatoes, boiled potatoes, cabbage, carrots and gravy made with Bisto granules. Afters would most likely be Stewed Plums and Custard in summer and Prunes or an occasional Treacle Pudding in winter. There would be at least two other meaty meals during the week, cheap cuts such as Neck of Lamb which would be made into a stew with dumplings or possibly Pork Belly or Brisket. Horrifyingly I have now lived long enough to see these cuts that I was always wary of in the first place, appear on upmarket restaurant menus along with very fancy prices. As much of the current customer base has no former memory of them they are greeted with Oohs and Aahs of delight. Being the rather fussy eater described, I wasn’t all that keen first time around so I avoid them if I can. Meals I was in fact more keen on included Liver, Kidneys, Stuffed Hearts and Sausages, most especially the latter.

In deference to my father’s Catholicism, on Fridays we always had Fish, even long after he had died. I found some fish meals, particularly those simmered in milk, most unappetising, mainly because my mother had never got the hang of how to thicken a sauce with flour and insisted that milk flavoured with salt and parsley was actually Parsley Sauce. She was never a confident cook, putting her lack of skill down to the fact that when she and her siblings were growing up in Maxim Road, Crayford, there was such a lack of food that my Grandmother had been totally unable to provide any kind of role model. Not that she expressed it quite in those terms of course. I definitely recall other Friday fish meals of Sprats, Kippers and Bloaters with much more enthusiasm than her attempts at simmered fish with any kind of home-made sauce. The sauces I was happiest with and accustomed to were HP, Daddy’s and Tomato.

Although I recall a tin of Fry’s Cocoa suddenly appearing as a supper drink when I was about ten years old, few of us drank anything other than tea with our meals alongside the grown-ups. I was aware that some children were occasionally allowed Tizer or Lemonade but we only managed that on those occasions when we were required to sit outside a Pub with the adults inside. Even then Old Nan grumbled and complained that it was a waste of money saying she had no time for Bleeding Brahmans demanding lemonade to Sweeten Their Piddle. On Pub occasions though she was ignored and we couldn’t help but feel triumphant.

Breakfasts back then were infinitely more straightforward than they are today. There was no choice of Muesli and Yoghurt was unheard of so weekday breakfasts usually consisted of bread and jam in summer and porridge in winter. I should add that the porridge was of the rustic variety with no choice of flavourings and definitely not QuikCook. An occasional egg might be served to children on Sundays though their fathers and sometimes their mothers might have bacon as well occasionally. I envied Molly and Georgie a door or two down whose mother regularly provided Shredded Wheat but when I suggested we follow suit I was told boxed cereals were much too dear, like cube sugar which I also had a longing for and occasionally saw at their house. Old Nan said in her experience it was only Nobs and Toffs who went in for Frills such as cube sugar and it was likely such people went in for Real Cream as well. This remark caused me even more confusion because I thought Cream was the Libby’s Milk that we regularly poured over our tinned pineapple at Sunday teatime after consuming the compulsory two slices of bread and butter. The idea that there was something else known as Real Cream was astonishing.

Libby’s Milk was also sometimes served alongside the Sunday tea-time trifles my mother learned to make from Woman Magazine in the doctor’s waiting room. Her first attempt appeared in 1953 in honour of my brother turning six, not exactly a Birthday Party like some children were beginning to have in those post-war years, but all the same a most Special Tea. A Swiss Roll from the Co-op had been sliced and arranged at the bottom of a glass bowl, topped with a can of Fruit Salad and set with an orange flavoured jelly. This was left to completely solidify in our always chilly Front Room and when Bernard returned from school at 3.30 it was ready to be admired. His excitement was intense and even more so when the can of Libby’s appeared. He told me it was just like Sunday Tea Time and his ears turned pink with delight when we sang Happy Birthday.

Other infrequent treats were Lyons Fruit Pies, appearing on our tea table intermittently, never a whole one each, and cut reverently in half for my brother and me to share. It only occurred to me recently that my mother never appeared to partake of these occasional treats and I imagine that could only be because of the cost. An annual delight that all of us did take part in was the making and eating of pancakes on Shrove Tuesday, served deliciously with the juice of a lemon and a sprinkling of sugar. Other festive food included Hot cross buns appearing without fail in time for Easter, though we never made our own, and usually we were also given a small chocolate egg like every other child in the street.

Throughout my childhood there were some foods that were completely free such as Hop Tops, Cobnuts, Chestnuts, Blackberries and Crab Apples and if you could face it, Hedgehogs. But you had to make the effort to collect them which of course we did with enthusiasm except for the Hedgehogs which were usually left to my Grandmother who was more resilient about the fate of small mammals. There were also foods that were purloined on a seasonal basis from local farmers such as Apples, Pears, Cherries, Peas, Beans and New Potatoes and we viewed these thefts less as pilfering and more as a Right passed down via generations before us.

Now looking back over those years between the mid 1940s and the mid 1950s I have come to realise that there were a number of typical Kentish dishes that I never came across. No member of our large extended family seemed to make, have any interest in making or the necessary knowledge as to how to make local delights such as Gypsy Tart, Kentish Pudding Pie, Cherry Batter Pudding or Lenten Pie. Others spring to mind also, but they all remained a mystery to me and I only tried them decades later as an adult with the assistance of a suitable cookery book. If she was still alive, Old Nan would undoubtedly say that this was because they were foods that only Toffs & Nobs ate but somehow I don’t believe that.

Saturday, 20 May 2017

A North African Aunt

Although the postman called twice daily to York Road and the surrounding streets, during my childhood I cannot remember my mother receiving a great deal of mail. Occasionally one of her sisters might write what were called A Few Lines informing of illness in the family or suggesting A Day Out to Maidstone Market. These letters followed a strict formula, always beginning with `I hope this finds you well as it leaves me the same’ and continuing in a kind of staccato shorthand where whole words were deliberately omitted making the writer sound as if they wrote in great haste whilst standing at a kitchen bench - `went market yesterday’ or `was up hospital Sat’ indicating that the writer shopped at the local market the previous day or visited the hospital for some reason at the weekend. There were never letters from my grandmother because having never been to school she could not write at all and when called upon to sign her name, did so proudly and aggressively with a cross. And while my mother was not a frequent receiver of letters, on the other hand my father both sent and received mail on a regular basis.

Perhaps I noticed these pieces of correspondence more acutely in my last year at primary school when Mr Clarke taught us how to write letters Properly, never forgetting to include our address and the date in the top right hand corner of the page. I certainly began to pay keen attention to the correspondence my father received, especially the exciting envelopes from North Africa with very foreign stamps.

I could not help noticing that my mother was invariably most unsettled by these letters, particularly when they contained photographs. She without fail steamed open every one, oblivious to the fact that she was usually being observed by me and then seemed to hover on the brink of tearing the contents into a thousand pieces before resealing them and placing them on the kitchen mantelpiece in front of the clock. Little by little I learned that the letters came from a Madame Rampan whose family had a farm of some description in Tunisia. After developing a debilitating illness during the war my father had been sent to convalesce there on two occasions, each time for some months and by all accounts had got on extremely well with the family, especially one of the daughters, the one called Dominique. He and she, it seemed became very good friends. The photographs were generally of Madame Rampan, her husband, her three daughters or a small grandson, the son of Dominique. The very first photograph to tumble from one of the envelopes showed a group of people with little Andre as a baby being dangled over my father’s shoulders by his mother. This particular image caused my mother considerable anger and then tears followed by at least a week of total silence.

Conflict between parents always causes concern to their children and I decided to try to get to the bottom of the problem by asking enthusiastic questions about the Tunisian family in as animated a manner as was possible with my mother hunched and miserable over the tea table. My father explained that Mr and Mrs Rampan were very keen for us to visit them for a holiday and told me all about the farm and how hot Tunisia was, a place where exotic and barely recognizable fruits such as grapes grew alongside more familiar things like oranges and lemons. Each time one of the airmail envelopes arrived he could hardly wait to sit down after tea, once the table had been cleared, to reply. Sometimes he sent photographs of Bernard and me. My mother observed the process desolately maintaining that nothing would ever persuade her to visit foreign places because she just didn’t hold with it and anyway she’d rather go to Margate for the day than contemplate places like Tunisia. In any case, we didn’t have money for such ideas.

The arguments about Little Andre and his mother became more frequent and I learned that Dominique was no better than she ought to be and I was amazed to observe my father swearing on his prayer book that henceforth neither she, nor either of her sisters, would be anything but just friends to him. I felt further compelled to sort out these complicated relationships.
I asked my mother if Mrs Rampan and Dominique were the same sort of friends as the Greek Aunts who had suddenly descended upon us a year or two previously, like a clutch of exotic birds, wearing furs and smelling of bluebell woods and causing great disharmony in our household. I was advised to button my lip so I went to where my father was cleaning his motor bike in the Anderson Shelter that had been turned into a garden shed and asked again. He told me I didn’t need to know the answer to that question right then. I asked when would be the right time to know with just the right amount of insolence in my voice but instead of the flash of anger I expected he simply looked resigned and told me he couldn’t really say when. One Sunday afternoon I tried a different strategy and approached him with a book of maps I had borrowed from the library. Where in Africa was Tunisia, I wanted to know, and just how hot was it there? Then just as I had predicted, he eagerly began once more to tell me how wonderful the farm was and that the Rampan family had treated him like the son they had never had and how he had learned a great deal of French whilst living with them. It seemed timely to risk mentioning Dominique and so I asked if she was possibly a New Aunt. He nodded with a far away look in his eyes, a chamois leather now motionless in his right hand. Feeling a strangely unfamiliar bond of sympathy with this father I had never quite adapted to having back from war in the first place, I assured him that I would love to go there with him even if we had to do so without my mother and brother. I added that such an arrangement would also be a great deal cheaper than the original idea and he smiled sadly.

Filled with a growing enthusiasm for North Africa the next day at school I elaborated on the theme and told the tight group of girls who were currently my friends, Pam, Pat and Pauline, that our family was organising a North African holiday for the following year. They were pleasingly impressed though just a little confused as to where precisely Tunisia might be, Pam wondering if it was as far away as The Isle of Wight. Walking home from school I told Molly whose geographical knowledge was less patchy, and she told her mother who told Mrs Stewart who must have mentioned it to her daughter Beryl who although she was a C stream student had a certain way with words and could hold her own in a verbal dispute.
We were waiting in the Friday dinner queue when Beryl moved in to attack me.
`Your Dad’s got a Fancy Woman out in Africa!’
I was appalled. We all knew that Fancy Women were nothing to boast about so I vehemently denied the fact.
`Yes he has because my Mum and my Nan both was both talking about it the other night.’
I told her in that case they were both dirty liars.
Beryl looked immediately injured, `It’s a known fact that your Dad goes in for Fancy Women – what about them Greeks? My Nan says you only had to look at that lot to know they were Fancy Women.’
Outraged and becoming awkwardly tearful I insisted that those Greeks were my Aunts.
`You can call them Aunts if you like,’ Beryl jeered, pleased with the attentive audience of dinner queue girls, `Everybody else calls them Fancy Women.’
As we moved a few paces closer to the vat of banana custard on the dinner trestle Beryl warmed to her theme adding, ` Your Dad has been carrying on with that clippie from the 496 bus too – he’s well known for carrying on my Mum says.’
I told her that her Mum was an ugly pig with a smelly bum and moved to kick her but she deftly stepped sideways and the kick mostly landed against the dinner trestle, hurting me more than her and causing the Dinner Lady to wave a spoon and tell me to watch my behaviour.
Beryl collected her dish of banana custard and almost skipped back to the table she shared with five other C streamers promising she was going to tell both her Mum and her Nan the names I had called them.

I was troubled by the dinner queue exchange and on the way home asked Molly for her opinion. She said that she had always considered my father to be a good example of a Handsome Middle Aged Man and so he was bound to be prone to carrying on. It would be something he had no control over like having freckles. Once men reached middle age, she added, it was better for all concerned if they were just ordinary and plain looking. This discourse did little to make me feel more positive.
I felt even worse a day or two later when I was accosted by Mrs Stewart with a threatening look on her face, advising me what she would do if I ever called her names again and adding that in any case she didn’t want her Beryl to have too much to do with me. Apparently she had not yet forgiven my family for the business of my Aunt Freda and the Black Market nylon stockings during the war. To my relief she did not go on to remind me of the baby switch incident when my new brother had been substituted for her Little Julie.

Nevertheless, feeling that a certain amount of Right was on my side since as an example of a Handsome Middle Aged Man, my father was less responsible for his actions than he might otherwise have been, I pointed out that her Beryl should not have said that he had a Fancy Woman in Africa because that person was just my new Aunt Dominique . In fact just like the Greeks who turned out absolutely definitely to be Aunts. I added that neither did he Carry On with the clippie from the 496 bus.
Mrs Steward looked at me strangely, opened her mouth, closed it again and with what seemed a monumental effort, stopped herself from saying more. She walked away and I was left with an odd feeling of unease and a great desire to have an ordinary sort of father, one who bordered on being plain and who didn’t Carry On too much.

Friday, 19 May 2017

Adventures In Ebooks

Fortunately I am not obsessive about checking my book sales which is just as well because too much checking only leads to disappointment. I was talking to a friend the other day who asked how often I did actually check (and made me promise to be honest) - when I said about once a fortnight she nearly dropped her Skinny Milk Latte into her lap. She admitted to checking twice daily and looked around furtively as she spoke.
So I'm glad I'm not too obsessive. On the other hand it really is about time more interest was shown in the Harlotry volume. The loyal band of followers is straggling somewhat. I'm almost disappointed in you all!