Saturday, 31 December 2016
The Eleven Plus had most definitely been something of a major failure as far as I was concerned and when all the ensuing dramas were over I could not have been happier to finally be returned to the Girls’ Secondary Modern School in Colyer Road, Northfleet. The good news for my ever hopeful father was that in those long gone days, after the first two years of secondary school, students could take something sometimes called The Thirteen Plus, a further chance to `better themselves’. Sadly he did not live to witness my eventual success in this regard. Passing the examination meant transferring to a Technical School for the remainder of the school years. Again I did not pass the examination as smoothly as I fully expected I would, but I did earn the opportunity to `get in on interview’. I enjoyed the interview process and remember smugly telling the Headmistress that I was either going to be an actress or a writer or perhaps both once I was a few years older but that in the interim it would do no harm at all to learn shorthand and typing or cooking and dressmaking. I was then asked to spell some difficult words which luckily I managed. When we got the good news that I had secured a place, my mother first of all cried and said how proud of me my poor dead father would now be and then we immediately went to Waterdales to visit Aunt Lou and Cousin Connie. My cousin had already been a Tech Girl for a year and she began to tell me all I would need to know about the place. `You get to choose the course you do. You can either do Domestic or Commercial. I’m doing Domestic so I do mostly cooking and dress making. It’s quite a lot of fun and we made Toad in the Hole last week and took it home for tea. My Dad said that cooking would be the best thing for me for when I get married…..and I’ll need to be able to make clothes for my family too…’ `What’s Commercial then?’ I wanted to know. Connie sat opposite me importantly, `When you do Commercial you learn typing and shorthand and book keeping and so when you leave school you can get a job as a shorthand typist and work in an office instead of a factory. The shorthand part of it is very hard and a lot of the girls drop out of that course but they can still be copy typists because the typing is dead easy and the book keeping is quite simple too’ When I said that Book Keeping sounded dangerously like maths to me she reassured me and told me that I was wrong and all you had to do was put figures in the correct columns in an accounts ledger – it couldn’t be more simple. She added that if she had been allowed to choose for herself she would have chosen Commercial but Uncle Walter had felt it would be a waste of time because within a few years of leaving school she would be married anyhow and what good would shorthand and typing be to her then? Cooking on the other hand was a skill that would always be useful. Nevertheless Connie maintained she would have liked a job in an office, maybe in the offices of the factory where her Dad worked. The pay was good, she maintained knowledgeably. As at this stage, although my heart lay firmly with the theatre as a primary career, I was also half planning to enter a convent and I wondered briefly what use Commercial was going to be when put alongside Domestic in that particular situation. However, the idea of cooking for fifty other nuns and sewing habit after habit into the night did not appeal either so I said I would probably be choosing Commercial. Despite Connie’s reassurances I still had considerable doubts about Book Keeping which definitely sounded like maths in disguise, but I would cross that bridge when I came to it. Uncle Walter did his very best to influence my mother sufficiently to prevent my choice coming to fruition. `With any luck Nellie a fine, strong girl like your Jean will be hitched by the time she’s eighteen so what will she want with typing? No, what she wants to be able to do is cook good meals for her husband and make decent clothes for her kiddies….’ And to her credit although Nellie nodded in agreement she said to me later on that she too thought I would be much better off doing shorthand and typing and being able to get a bloody good job in an office in Gravesend where I would earn a decent wage. So instead of going into Form Three with my friends from the Secondary Modern in Colyer Road, in September of that year I went with just a little trepidation into the first stage of the Commercial course at Wombwell Hall, a dilapidated Victorian mansion in Hall Road, Northfleet and the former home of the Colyer-Fergusson family. Before the term started we had collected Connie’s outgrown uniform from the previous year: green serge skirt, two cream cotton blouses, a green and gold striped tie and green blazer. All were much too big for me and I knew that there would be only a slim chance of me growing out of them before the three years at Tech concluded and I left the school for ever. Before the first week of term was over I had to report myself to the headmistress for a uniform breach: shoes the wrong colour and style. My mother’s interpretation of brown, laced up walking shoes had somehow included light tan wedge heel sandals. Miss Fuller, the Headmistress, looked at me sternly. `Why are you not wearing regulation school shoes?’ I remember looking down at my feet and somehow seeing the offending sandals for the first time. I shrugged and said nothing. She sifted through a pile of papers before her, `Now, you are one of the funded girls are you not?’ I just stood there helplessly. What on earth was a `funded girl.’ `You are orphaned are you not?’ `No I’m not,’ I said although I suddenly liked the idea of being orphaned. `My father died, but my mother is still alive,’ I explained truthfully. She rather unexpectedly smiled and said kindly, `My dear child, if your mother is a widow then technically that makes you an orphan because you are fatherless.’ A most interesting piece of information. She went on to explain that because I was funded I got all kinds of privileges that other students did not get such as free dinners, and a uniform subsidy to cover the cost of expensive items such as the missing brown lace-up shoes. My mother, she told me, should have received a voucher for Danby’s the Uniform Shop to cover the initial cost. As well as shoes I needed a proper leather satchel, not to mention a regulation green woolen cardigan for the winter months ahead and also a gabardine raincoat. These were costly items, she told me. I did not need to be told that because Betty Haddon had regaled me with the exact cost of the gabardine raincoat her mother had to buy before she had been allowed through the gates of Gravesend Girls’ Grammar School two years previously. Miss Fuller looked uncertainly at Connie’s cast off uniform, slightly shook her head and said that she would write a note for me to take home. When I got home my grandmother was ensconced at the kitchen table drinking tea with my mother and when the contents of the note were revealed she told Nellie that it was her own fault for even considering sending me to toffee-nosed schools that put unnecessary demands on families - ` like brown lace-up shoes and gawd almighty, gabardine raincoats if yer don’t mind!.’ A great lump of a girl like me apparently should be thinking of going out working, `not sitting around in a school all day on yer fat arse in yer gabardine raincoat’. Some hours later when she had finally left to catch the bus back to Crayford I demanded to know what had happened to my Danby’s Funding Voucher. Nellie blustered and folded her arms across her chest, `What bloody voucher are you talking about?’ `My funding voucher – you know what I’m talking about. I’m supposed to have a proper uniform – a new one from a shop, and proper brown shoes. Why didn’t you tell me about the voucher?’ But she simply shook her head and continued to lie, though added that as I was making such a fuss, on Saturday morning she would take me to Danby’s to buy the shoes. This promise was a small success but I still felt humiliated and indignant. The uniform shop was at that time situated in the Regency crescent directly adjacent to the Gravesend Clock Tower and was a place I had only rarely entered. We pushed our way through the heavy glass door and mounted the softly carpeted stairs to the first floor. It felt a little bit, and even smelled a little bit, like being in church. The rows of school clothes swung ever so slightly in ghostly unison on their hangers as we passed, dark blue gymslips, dark green skirts, grey shorts, blazers of every colour imaginable, and a blissful row of gabardine raincoats, some navy and some green. The tall male assistant had a superior air and looked us up and down two or three times before enquiring if he could help us. My mother did a lot of whispering about vouchers and he looked us up in a register and rather surprisingly found that we were already `customers’ and furthermore, that quite recently a boy`s winter shoes and coat had been purchased, presumably these items had been for my brother, a co-orphan, who my mother in her wisdom had decided was to have a share in my orphans’ voucher. Luckily there was still enough credit left for the brown lace-ups and as I was not prepared to leave without the much vaunted rainwear, a dark green gabardine raincoat that I was still growing into three years later. There was not enough left for a leather satchel but I was so delirious with delight about the raincoat that I barely noticed. The first thing I did when we got home was search for the boy’s shoes and winter coat which I found hanging in the back of my mother’s wardrobe waiting for the first chill of November when undoubtedly Bernard would climb into them. I remained resentful for weeks. However, I was to enjoy my time at Wombwell Hall and this was primarily because I fell in love with the house and found the history of the place totally fascinating for some reason. I learned that there had been three Wombwell Halls, the first being built in the early 1400s. The Wombwells owned the Hall until the sixteen hundreds, when the local branch of the family died out and a certain John Forterie, a Huguenot refugee from Lille, purchased the estate. He and his descendants occupied it until 1774, when they too died out. During their time there the family pulled down the original Hall and built a very fine red brick mansion faced with white stone to take its place. This house was acknowledged by many as being one of the loveliest country mansions in the country, and great was the consternation when in 1860 the new owner, Thomas Colyer, had it pulled down and erected his own Victorian hall which was the one now occupied by the school. Although the old mansion had been acclaimed for its beauty, it did have its dark side. In the early 1800s, one of the servants, a young maid, said to have been strikingly beautiful was murdered by a man called Farmer. Having shot the girl, he attempted to commit suicide by cutting his own throat. A Miss Brabazon, who was a keen history and travel writer, in her book entitled A Month in Gravesend reports with relish 'the blood of murdered and murderer mingled together on the floor'. However, Farmer did not do a very good job and did not die. At his trial he claimed that his pistol had gone off accidentally and he was finally not convicted. Later he was transported to Australia for a subsequent crime. At the time they acquired the Hall and estate the Colyer-Fergussons were already very large landowners and had property and land as far away as Farningham and Crayford. The estate began to prosper but sadly for them this was at the time of the rapid industrialization of Gravesend and Northfleet and almost as they watched, artisan housing began to creep across the once green pastures towards them. By the end of the first World War the worker housing and amenities were almost on their doorstep so the family finally moved out in disgust. During the Second World War the Hall served as a hospital for wounded anti aircraft gunners from the Tollgate and Green Street batteries and after the war the family finally sold up to the Kent Education Authority, who turned it into a Girls Technical School where I now happily daydreamed on a daily basis, placing my ever more elaborate mythical families within its walls. My favourite part of the place was the huge former kitchen, dairy and utility rooms where the bells to call those who served to Dining Room, Morning Room, Ballroom, Blue Bedroom, etc, were still in evidence. None of my enthusiasm for the Hall transferred into academic excellence of a general nature, however, and overall the only subjects I did consistently well in were shorthand and typing. At times I showed potential and what was termed `originality’ in English but this was primarily because I had fallen wildly in love with one of the English teachers, Miss K. Smith. Decades later I learned that Miss K. Smith had influenced a number of her students in exactly the same way. I was not alone in my adoration of her. At the end of my first year I actually got the highest mark in the Religious Instruction class, not because of any crush on the teacher but rather because the whole idea of religion fascinated me and clearly bored the rest of the class. But it was Pitmans Shorthand where I really excelled. As Connie had warned, it was difficult to master and this made it exciting. I loved being able to write in a secret language of complicated squiggles that I could later, with a modicum of luck, decipher. During the first term Chicken Pox followed by Mumps ensured I was absent for six weeks but desperate not to fall behind I practiced shorthand forms diligently throughout this time and was largely unhindered by my absence. About a third of the girls who started the shorthand course, dropped out after the first two terms and decided that being Copy Typists in a Pool was an acceptable option. A few even dropped out of the typing class because they found the grinding determination of Miss Hart, who had somehow or other flown planes during The War, to not allow them to look at their hands as they worked, too draining. She stood at the front of the room in her tweed suit, armed with a heavy ruler which she drummed on the desks of the front row. Her iron grey hair flew in all directions and her voice was huge. `Right Girls are we ready to begin? We will begin: DO NOT LOOK AT YOUR HANDS………asdf ;lkj – and again, asdf ;lkj do NOT look at your hands…..’ I found it exhilarating and could manage it all quite easily – and I did not look at my hands. When we all needed a break or to allow the slow ones to catch up we would ask her a question about planes. `Oh I thought I heard a plane go across Miss Hart. What kind of plane do you think it might have been?’ Then she would stop drumming, stop shouting, perch on her table and talk about Spitfires and Hurricanes and Lancaster Bombers as well as Focke Wolfes and Messerschmitts. She would talk for so long and we became so bored that we then longed to return to asdf ;lkj and the ongoing demands that we should NOT look at our hands. Suddenly being good at something was a strange feeling, especially when so many others struggled with the commercial subjects. Maybe in the end it is all to do with aptitude rather than academic ability; some of the strugglers after all, had not needed to pass the interview process in order to secure their place at Wombwell Hall. Later I learned to my very great satisfaction that both Ruby Benfield and Betty Haddon of the dreaded eleven plus episode in my life, went on to commercial college at sixteen and neither were able to satisfactorily absorb the intricacies of Pitman’s Shorthand. This fact was later not lost on my mother. `Both them two, that Benfield and that Hadden girl `ad to go to college to learn to do typing and shorthand – and there was you able to learn it at school, years before they did. That Grammar School didn’t do them much good in the end did it?’ She actually seemed to be suddenly proud of me. And indeed I was more than a little bit proud of myself. I have never forgotten those Wombwell Hall years.
Thursday, 29 December 2016
The Eleven Plus examination loomed large in my young life from the beginning of 1951. It was talked about all the time at school as the staff began to prepare those of us who might conceivably pass this terrifying hurdle with `mock’ tests. Passing this examination was in those days all important because `it sorted the wheat from the chaff’, we were informed, those who were `intellectually able’ would have the opportunity to go on to greater things via Gravesend Grammar School For Girls (or Boys) where we would be taught French, German and Latin as well as Classics and Calculus. The world would open up to us, we would get excellent jobs upon leaving the Grammar School and an elite few might perhaps even go on to a University where we could work towards a Degree! The rest of us were destined for the Secondary Modern and jobs on the factory floor or behind the counter in Woolworths followed by simple lives amongst the decent poor. As I was still years away from a job of any description, an excellent one was not an objective high on my agenda of things I must strive for. I had absolutely no idea what a University or a Degree was. My father talked to me very seriously about the upcoming examination. `You have to do your very best to pass and then you’ll get into the Grammar School and have a whole raft of opportunities in life – so you must try as hard as possible and if you do pass, I’ll buy you a bike!’ I was impressed. I was not used to being promised expensive gifts. My parents were not in the habit of buying toys for me and where other children regularly had sweets and comics such as `Dandy’, `Beano’, `Comic Cuts’ and `Film Fun’ I rarely had access to these delights. It was quite unusual for me to be given pocket money and I was very envious of others who were given money regularly on a weekly basis. Owning a bike was certainly something worth aiming for. For months my father practised times tables and capitals of countries with me and told my mother he was confident I would pass. I became positive about it myself and more and more convinced of certain success. Ruby Benfield told me she was not going to even try to pass because if you did happen to succeed then it meant years of effort ahead of you in the form of homework such as French and German. Why would any sane person, Ruby maintained, put themselves in that position? I was impressed and repeated the conversation to my father who looked alarmed - `Don’t you be influenced by what she says – you try hard to pass, d’you hear me? Then you’ll get a brand new bike.’ I fervently agreed to try my very hardest. On the day of the examination I sat between Ruby Benfield and Betty Haddon, throat dry, palms sweaty and ready to give it my all. `I’m not going to even try,’ Ruby still maintained loudly, `I really don’t want to pass because I don’t want all that homework.’ `Neither do I,’ Betty echoed, `I’m not going to try either.’ The terrifying examination turned out to be much easier than I had expected although some of the mathematics section was tricky and seemed to revolve around engine drivers whose trains passed each other at different speeds. All this was incomprehensible to me but I loved the story writing section where we had half an hour to write something creative. I wrote a highly fanciful story, mostly lifted directly from my latest library book about a girl who was fortunate enough to be shipwrecked on a Pacific Island with her dog and had to exist on coconuts and pineapples until rescued. I was very pleased with this story and thought it was certain to impress the examiners. My father met me from the exam room and asked if I had tried my hardest and if any of it had been too difficult for me. I reassured him, dismissing the event as `so EASY!’ He was obviously relieved and uncharacteristically bought me a chocolate ice cream on the way home. It seemed months before we heard the outcome of the exam. The new Headmaster handed out envelopes for us to give to our parents. I was given mine without comment and ran home to joyfully hand it to my mother, telling her I thought it was the eleven plus result. I had failed. My mother seemed as surprised as I was, `You didn’t pass….oh dear your poor father…. You didn’t pass.’ I was totally taken aback. I would not be a bicycle owner after all. I wondered if I might even be punished. My mother seemed very apprehensive about my father’s reaction and after a while turned on me accusingly. `I told you NOT to listen to that Ruby Benfield didn’t I? When she said she wasn’t going to try. That’s your trouble, you’re easily led by others – you just follow on like a silly sheep – you were TOLD not to take no notice of Ruby Benfield, but you never bloody listen do you?’ But I had not taken any notice of Ruby or Betty either. I had tried as hard as I could. When my father came home later that evening I was already in bed and strained nervously to hear their conversation. I heard him saying that he had been sure I would pass and wondering if you could still pay to send a child to the Grammar school. But even she knew that you couldn’t and even if it was found to be possible they were not in any position to do so. Next day he told me he was very disappointed and feared that now I would probably have to go to the Secondary Modern in September unless he could think of a viable alternative. At school the next day I learned that only two children from our school had passed that year; those two were Ruby Benfield and Betty Haddon. `I thought you two said you weren’t going to even try,’ I commented reproachfully to Ruby. `Well I didn’t try,’ Ruby maintained, somewhat smugly, `Mummy said I didn’t have to try because she doesn’t believe in pushing me. I just passed anyhow – without trying’ `So did I,’ Betty agreed. `Well I didn’t try either,’ I lied. Once I got used to the fact that I would not shortly be the proud owner of a new bicycle and I would not be wearing the dark blue uniform after all, I began to feel more cheerful. After all Milly had failed the eleven plus in the previous year and had been attending the Secondary Modern for several months. She loved it and during her first week had excitedly told me just how much it was like going to Boarding School. `There are lots of rules and you have to walk on the left in the corridors at all times – you don’t stay with the same teacher all day – you go to different rooms for different subjects. There are PREFECTS – can you imagine? It’s just like boarding school only without the sleeping there. There are school dinners and you have to eat everything on your plate or you sit there until you do – BUT you can ask for a small portion if you like….and if you are really well behaved and set a good example you have the chance to become a prefect yourself! There’s a Head Girl! Her name is Elspeth! Isn’t that a lovely boarding school kind of name?’ Milly, it seemed, felt just as if she was part of an Angela Brazil school story or at the very least an Enid Blyton school story. School was fun when you went to the Secondary Modern and now I would be able to join in that fun. I was particularly interested in the idea of prefects and head girls, and school dinners sounded like much more fun, even for a fussy eater like me, than going home for midday dinner as we primary school children did. Things were looking up! He did try not to show it but my failure had been a huge disappointment to my father although my mother soon adjusted to it once she had discussed it with Aunt Mag, Aunt Martha and Nan. Aunt Mag thought that you couldn’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear and I clearly wasn’t `up to it’ academically and after all Secondary Modern had been perfectly alright for her Harold, Leslie and Margaret and she didn’t expect for one moment that her Ann would pass. Harold and Leslie both had good jobs at Vickers where there was plenty of overtime if they wanted it and Margaret had a lovely little job in Dolcis Shoes in Dartford. Aunt Martha’s Pat had just failed also and it had been a relief to both of them because once you start getting involved with fancy schools there were never ending demands for uniforms not to mention the extra bus fares. Nan was frankly incredulous that anybody would be upset about such matters - `Never `ad a day’s schooling in me life an` look at me – I’m right as rain! When Little Violet gets to that exam age I’ll keep `er `ome that day – bugger them! ’ The latter was not an empty threat because Nan was already in the habit of withdrawing Little Violet from school on a whim, and most especially when she needed her to run errands on the days when she felt a little under the weather herself. As a group they viewed my father’s reaction as unnecessarily emotional and certainly unhealthy and so my mother’s initial attitude changed to one of watchful cheerfulness as she waited confidently for the fuss to die down. Aunt Martha came to visit with Pat when my father was on an afternoon Sunday shift and Pat told me she was `gobsmacked’ to hear that I had actually tried to pass the eleven plus. `Only the dopey brain boxes go to Grammar and they don’t get no time to do nothing after school with all that homework. They don’t have no mates at all for years.’ She assured me that Secondary Modern was a much better option and when I offered that I thought a lot of the problem was due to the fact that everybody thought I had been influenced by Ruby Benfield she suggested we write Ruby a letter to `pay her back rotten’ outlining what a bitch she was and perhaps even threatening her with some kind of retribution via violence. I had never really liked Ruby and Pat’s plan sounded reasonable so paper and pen in hand I settled down to write at her dictation. `Dear Friend,’ she began, pausing now and again to find the best possible word, and to check with me for spelling conventions, `I write this for your own good. You are a real bitch and yet you think you are somebody special just because you can pass exams. You will have no mates at the Grammar when you go there and you will soon regret it. Be careful that you don’t get hurt because we are watching you – from a well meaning friend.’ She confided that her Mum had sometimes been forced to write similar letters to neighbours because they put their rubbish bins in the wrong place for instance or had late night male visitors. Without a qualm I followed her up York Road and, giggling, we pushed the note under the Benfield door and before the eyes of the Benfield grandmother who lived opposite and was on her doorstep idling away the Sunday afternoon and eyeing us curiously. The explosive reaction over the next day or two was bigger by far than anything I had previously experienced. Exchanging my brother for Judy Stewart was a mere token in comparison. First the two Mrs. Benfields, the older and the younger, at the garden gate waving the `Dear Friend’ letter in the air and ranting in unison. The younger stopping for breath, dabbing her eyes with a handkerchief, the older repeating again and again, `Under my very eyes, right in front of me she was – bold as brass – no shame at all in her!’ Then my mother, grimly grey-faced in front of me her head shaking in disbelief, `Why?’ Even I, who had a habit of denying most misdemeanours, knew that there was no point in refuting the fact. Perhaps I could moderate the crime a little. I explained that it had been Pat’s idea. `Don’t go blaming Pat. You just do what anyone tells you to don’t you? If Pat told you to eat shit would you do it? Just you wait til your father gets home!’ His fury matched my mother’s embarrassment and he outlined a list of penalties involving early bedtimes, withdrawal of any food treats like canned peaches with Sunday tea, certainly no sweets or ice cream ever again, no playing out in the street with Milly for what seemed like a year or two, and I might have to be `put away’.Putting Away was serious because sometimes it actually happened, although I was unclear where children were actually put when they were `put away’. I knew that two of the older Smith boys had been `put away’ for two years for offences that involved stealing and episodes of violence, and according to my mother it was not overlooked that they had also been `mouthy’ to their mother. They had been rather more subdued when they returned but even so all the `decent’ local children were advised to `steer clear’ of them. Then the Benfields descended again, this time Ruby’s father in place of her grandmother and they were actually asked into our front room! The front room with the best mats in that my mother did not hold with others walking all over. This time the meeting took place without anger or raised voices and, sitting on the stairs in the dark with my ear close to the wall, I could hear nothing at all. Next day I was told that I would have to write Ruby a letter of apology and that her family had forbidden her to have anything further to do with me. They had warned other families about me it seemed and intended to continue to do so. They, like Mrs. Stewart before them, felt something ought to be done about me. I might still have to be Put Away. For a week or two very little was said to me. We sat totally taciturn at the meal table, my brother looking curiously and fearfully at each of the strained faces around him and not daring to say anything but wondering if he could have jam on his bread. I was sent to bed with no books to read immediately after my plain bread and butter tea where I lay feeling sorry for myself and planning revenge. It was summertime and over several lonely hours I could hear the voices of other children playing. Never the Benfields of course because Donald and Ruby were rarely allowed to play on the street with other children but always in their own back yard where from time to time the privileged few might be allowed to join them. I had never been among the few and neither had Milly. We knew that the Dawson children had sometimes been there to play and had once actually been invited to tea, just like in a book. As late afternoon turned to evening mothers began calling the children from the street one after the other. First the cosseted children. Mrs. Stewart always leading the charge at seven o’clock on the dot calling for Brenda and Judy who responded obediently, immediately. Mrs. Bedford seeking Joan, Mrs. Draper for Katy and Brian, Mrs. Berryman for Jennifer. None of these with such impressive, instant result. A lull as shadows lengthened along the wall of my room and the less protected and confined played on for another hour. Then both Mrs. Brents began to gather their offspring, Vera and Audrey to York Road, Kenny, Alan and Colin, the latter now dutifully joining the football game, to Buckingham Road. It would be nearly ten o’clock by the time Milly and Georgie Foreman would be called and well and truly dark before Mrs. Robbins ventured to the door to recall her brood even though Sonja-Kim and Jeremy were still pre-schoolers. And then only the Smiths of Shepherd Street remained, the younger ones still fighting Indians on The Old Green, the adolescents lolling against the wall of Troke’s shop practising smoking Woodbine `dog-ends’ retrieved from the gutter and laughing a lot. And as the British Volunteer tipped its clientele noisily into Buckingham Road at eleven, even they would have to `go in’ and help their mother put their father to bed. At last the final human sound of the summer night would be George Foreman senior wending his way home from The Prince Albert singing `Nellie Dean’. And only then could I fall uneasily asleep. During the long summer holiday where I was to go to school next was from time to time debated between my parents with my father still maintaining that I should have passed that examination. He went to Maidstone on one occasion to the Kent Country Education Offices to see if he could look at my examination paper but this he found to be out of the question. As September neared I was thankful to find that after all I was going to be allowed to go to the Secondary Modern where most of the local girls would also be going and I began to look forward to it with excitement. My mother even took me to Danby’s Uniform Shop and at first I thought I was going to get a brand new uniform but to my disappointment it was to the `Used Uniforms’ section she firmly steered me. My father spent any spare pound or two on his precious motor bike and we were not accustomed to new clothes but I had hoped that this would be one of the rare occasions when the strict fiscal rules would be broken. Never mind, on the first day of school I headed off with Milly, by now a seasoned second year, dressed like everyone else in green gymslip, white blouse and green and yellow striped tie. I was filled with excited anticipation. I took to the Secondary Modern like a duck to water and could not have been happier. On the first day we all went into the Hall and were lectured by Miss Dennis the Headmistress who was tall, thin and angular and looked as if she had just stepped from one of Angela Brazil’s pages and would fold herself up cosily into the book again at three thirty. She talked of being happy at work and at play, striving for success, looking to a bright future and growing into confident young women. She urged us all not to let her down. I was certainly ready to do my best and anxious indeed never, ever to be the sort of pupil who would be singled out as letting Miss Dennis down. Then we sat what she described as a `Qualifying Test’ which would be used to sort us in streams. Milly had already warned me about the Test and had herself been placed in the A Stream. Anxious to follow in her footsteps, to dazzle my father with my newly acquired brilliance, and above all not let Miss Dennis down, I worked feverishly at my test paper and breathed a hearty sigh of relief when this enthusiastic attack did in fact do the trick. I was now a fully fledged Form One A Stream Student and what was more I was to be in Keller House – just like Milly, and would be allowed to wear the coveted yellow sash during netball games. We First Years were sorted into four houses inspired by Helen Keller, Laura Knight, Marie Curie and Florence Nightingale whose illustrious lives it was presumably hoped were going to continue to inspire us over the next few years. Despite my mother’s gloomy mantra that my behaviour would undoubtedly ensure that I would go through life without any friends: `…the way you behave nobody’s going to want to `ave nothing to do with you…’ I quickly found myself part of a group of the girls who sat importantly in the front row of our form class. Pat, Pamela, Pauline, Marjorie, Shirley and I were the undisputed academic leaders although I fell down badly in all aspects of Mathematics no matter how hard I tried. We spent playtimes together, gossiping about the inadequacies of lesser mortals and shared a table together at lunchtime under the watchful eye of a Table Prefect called Monica. The excitement of School Dinners was enormous as I threw myself frenetically into this school-story period of my life. I was both fascinated and fearful each day as I waited to see what was going to be served, fervently praying to God to ensure it was something I would be able to eat. They followed a predictable, ongoing pattern starting with Irish Stew and Gypsy Tart on Monday and ending with Fish cakes and Banana Custard on Friday, and most of the time caused me no problems in fact proving to be infinitely more edible than most of my mother’s food . Things could only get better. In fact I was quite wrong because my life was about to take a nose dive as my father’s Catholicism got the better of him and he made a decision that would prove to be very traumatic for me. I do not think that he made the decision to again uproot me from a non-Catholic school lightly or that he realised the disturbing effect it would have on me. He acted in my best interests I am sure but when I was told one Friday evening in October 1951 that on Monday morning I would be going to Gravesend to St. John’s Catholic High School instead of Northfleet Secondary Modern I was thrown into total emotional turmoil. `I like it where I am – please don’t make me go – please, please don’t make me,’ I begged, ready to promise almost anything to be left where I was in a school situation I was definitely enjoying. `You’ll have an opportunity to improve your maths,’ He promised, `and learn French – you’ll get a much better education’ I didn’t want a much better education; I wanted to be left alone. I pointed out that at Secondary Modern we would start French in Term Two after Christmas but he was implacable. His mind was made up and he would take me there himself on Monday morning. `You’ll make much nicer friends,’ My mother promised, `And think about it – when those Benfields see you going off up the road to get the Gravesend bus they’ll wonder where on earth you’re going to school – but it won’t be the Secondary Modern so it’ll be one in the eye for them won’t it?’ It was the first time the `Benfield Business’ had been mentioned for weeks and I had put it to the back of my mind ready to be almost forgotten like the baby exchange incident. It was clearly still very much to the forefront of hers. `I don’t care WHAT they think, I just want to stay where I am. I like it there.’ My mother continued to cajole. `It’s a lovely school St. John’s is and all the children have birthday parties. You’ll get invited to all kinds of parties, go to all kinds of places.’ The only birthday party giving family in York Road was the Benfields. I had never attended or been given a birthday party of my own in my life to date and I was sensible enough to realise that this situation was unlikely to change. `I don’t want to go to parties….’ And I didn’t. `You will do what we want,’ my father advised me, `Not what you want. The trouble with you is that you get altogether too much of what YOU want. Now you are going to do what WE want for a change.’ He refused to enter into any more discussion and over the weekend we went back to eating meals in silence and I contemplated running away but was too despondent to do so. He took me to Mass on Sunday and we walked without speaking, our polished Sunday shoes clattering against the paving stones. After Mass one of the Primary School nuns, Sister Camilla, stopped to talk to us and told me that the Holy Sisters at St. John’s were so looking forward to having me at their school and that she was confident I was going to do very well there. Father O’Mara who rarely looked in our direction, nodded toward us approvingly and my father stood a little taller and straightened his tie. I wondered how many of them were party to the conspiracy. On Monday morning I woke very early, before the birds had begun to stir, and lay listening to the sounds of my father snoring, and the thunder of the first Gravesend to London Express as it emerged from the tunnel at Northfleet. I fantasised that I should have got up earlier, crept from the house, through the darkness just before dawn and played one last but fatal game of `First One Across Is a Sissy’ all by myself. I wondered if they would mourn me when they finally found my mangled body on the tracks or if my father would be philosophical and simply say, `Her problem was always that she wouldn’t be told….I knew she’d come to a bad end eventually.’ He took me on the bus to St. John’s which was on the Denton side of Gravesend and in those days quite a walk from the bus stop. We were greeted by a tall, unsmiling Reverend Mother, softly spoken, detached, who did not look at me. My father said he would meet me after school and to cheer up because he was sure I would love it once I gave it a chance. As he walked away I began to cry and Reverend Mother said nothing at all but guided me along corridors, keys jingling on her belt, flat sensible shoes echoing starkly, and pushed me into a classroom filled with alien faces. I sat at the back of the room and continued to cry. The class teacher, plump and jolly, with red curly hair escaping across her face and neck, was called Sister Delphine. She patted me on the shoulder kindly and said I was to cheer up. I shed huge tears down onto my hands until the desk was so wet the piece of paper handed to me to write my composition of three paragraphs on Child Labour In The Nineteenth Century was saturated and unusable. She gave me another piece and said I must cheer up at once or the other children would start crying too. The other girls were looking at me in surprise and a couple of them laughed. I cried harder and my nose began to run. Sister Delphine gave me her hanky and I soaked it in minutes and continued to cry. In fact I wept throughout that class, and the next, all through playtime and I was still crying so hard at lunch time I was told that I would not be allowed into the dining room. A small girl with glasses called Maureen had been detailed to stay with me and be my friend. She collected some food for both of us but mine congealed on the plate as I blubbered on. I was still sobbing when my father collected me and Reverend Mother took him aside and suggested that when we got home he should explain to me firmly that my behaviour was not acceptable for `a great girl of eleven’ and that tomorrow there must be no repeat of it.. The next day Maureen with the glasses was still my official friend but I maintained almost a full day of tears and was unable to manage more than a coherent sentence or two in response to her sympathetic questions. On Day Three Reverend Mother took a much firmer stance and as a punishment for my copious weeping, took me into the Boys’ Department where I was made to sit through two woodwork classes with two different groups of not unfriendly but certainly curious boys, none of whom would sit too close to me presumably because they feared what I might do next. They need not have worried. I had simply come to cry. On Day Four Reverend Mother hauled me into her office roughly by the shoulder and said that until I stopped crying I would have to stay all day every day in the Boys Department and do all my lessons with the boys. I said nothing at all, just stood in front of her, tears tumbling down my face, half nodding. I was put into a class of boys slightly older than myself. I had to sit in the front row between Peter and Michael for Mathematics, History, French and Music. I sobbed quietly throughout each lesson. The young music teacher asked me if I could explain why I was crying so much and there was a hush while the boys waited, wooden recorders half raised, tense, to find out. But by now I could say nothing at all and simply folded my arms across my chest, rocked back and forth and continued whimpering. They learned to play `Greensleeves’ without me. On Day Five we went to Mass in the morning and I was snivelling so noisily I was made to sit at the back of the church between two Sisters. One offered me a toffee but by now the inside of my mouth felt odd, unreal with all the crying so I declined and wept on. My father came earlier than usual that afternoon for a meeting with Reverend Mother. I waited outside her office on a bench sobbing softly. Much of their conversation was muffled. Reverend Mother, it appeared, had never in forty one years of teaching come across a child who did so much crying. I had been quite unco-operative and they had found it totally impossible to ascertain what I could or could not do. They were not even sure if I could read. She had never before, apparently, had to place a girl of my age in with the boys for days on end. Usually half an hour was enough to make a normal girl buck up and buckle down. And in any event, she could not leave me in with the boys ad infinitum could she? She had, she told him, toyed with the idea of caning me for all this nonsense – but then that would have given me something to cry for wouldn’t it? She was rapidly running out of patience. My father had to see it from her point of view and her view was that I was not a suitable pupil for St. Johns. St. Johns, it appeared, had a reputation to uphold. On the bus going home my father did not say a single word to me but seemed to be engrossed in the newspaper. I rocked slightly back and forth and miserably stared out at the late October lights as they came on in the town, a winter darkness already settling over the rainy streets. I had cried so much that week I could barely see out of eyes that were puffed almost beyond recognition. After tea my mother said that since it seemed that I was not getting on as well as everyone had hoped at St. John’s I would be able to return to the Secondary Modern on Monday. My father said nothing at all but continued to study the newspaper he had already read from cover to cover.
Wednesday, 28 December 2016
In recent years when back in my home town of Gravesend trips down Memory Lane invariably revolve around a great many pubs and churches. When I was a child an inordinate amount of time was spent in buildings that were definitely holy and those that were decidedly less than sacred. Perhaps not much has changed in the intervening years. I can recall going on a Sunday afternoon outings to Chatham, where my father grew up under the watchful eyes of the nuns at the children’s home, a town to which he was inextricably drawn from time to time. We would set out on an expedition of the narrow streets via motorbike and sidecar and very occasionally the outing might include a visit to the TRAFALGAR ARMS, an inn on a hillside out of town. My father said the place was once run by a woman called Jane Townshend who always dressed as a man and fought at the Battle of Trafalgar. Whether this story held any truth or not was immaterial to me at the time – I was more than willing to believe it. On these trips I was exhilarated to be riding pillion, my mother crouched into the sidecar with my brother on her knee, looking fearful. No compulsory protective headgear in those days which only added to the thrill of the occasion. Even more frequent were visits to the nearby village of Cobham where I am certain that the LEATHER BOTTLE at the time catered to families with a small room set aside for those with children. It was a dramatically old and beamed pub that had apparently first opened in the mid sixteen hundreds and had been a Royalist meeting place during the Civil War which was thrilling because at that time all girls like myself, under ten years of age, were automatically on the side of the Royalists. Each time we went there my father gave me the same little lecture about Charles Dickens incorporating the place into `The Pickwick Papers’ which of course I had not as yet attempted to read, and when I went to the toilet I was interested to stop every few seconds to admire the old prints that lined the corridor walls. Cobham Village must have been on the Dover to London stagecoach route and appeared to be one of the main stops. In my early twenties I took to patronizing the place once more and at that stage it was less convivial with large notices informing would-be-customers that young women wearing mini-skirts were not welcome inside. Nearby was the DARNLEY ARMS which claimed to go back as far as the twelfth century and was said to have a secret tunnel in the basement connecting to a building close by where smugglers stored their booty in the seventeen hundreds. I was told the place was haunted by Sir Thomas Kemp who was executed for some crime and spent his last hours there. My father was fascinated by tales of North Kent smugglers and from time to time took me with him on excursions tracing their general history. Once we went to Conyer to a place called the SHIP INN which overlooked a straggling creek and area of marshland and he said that battles took place in the vicinity between the gangs of smugglers and the Bow Street Runners. A number of the smugglers were caught and then they were either hanged or transported to the Colonies. One of my most favoured trips was that which took place fairly regularly to the village of Cooling where we always stopped to visit the church and gaze upon the thirteen little humped graves that featured in `Great Expectations’, the very place where terrified Pip met the convict. We sometimes admired the HORSESHOE & CASTLE from the outside but I don’t believe we ever went inside the place. Years later I returned regularly to Cooling with my own children, drawn always by those sad little graves in the churchyard. At one stage in the late nineteen forties we set off in a different direction to Dartford where we met an aunt or two at the WAT TYLER in the very active town centre, a building that was actually said to have been lived in by Tyler himself and where he planned the Peasants’Revolt of 1381. Said to have opened as a pub a few decades later, it seemed to be a long narrow, dimly lit place with no facilities for children so along with a number of cousins, I played on the busy footpath outside, the game of hopscotch impeding the progress of passers-by. From time to time we went to the VIGO at Fairseat on the North Downs Way and watched the locals play a strange and ancient game called Dadlums which seemed to be a kind of table Skittles. It was an imposing coaching inn between Tonbridge and Gravesend and later, my cousin Margaret upon her second marriage was lucky enough to live for a number of years in an equally imposing house nearby. One of my favourite Kentish towns was then and is now most certainly Faversham where over a couple of hot summers in the late nineteen forties we visited the ALBION TAVERN with its conveniently placed picnic tables outside, the BEAR INN where an unfortunate twelve year old boy was said to have been taken by a naval press gang and never seen again and the wonderfully named SWAN & HARLEQUIN outside of which I played happily for an hour or more with some local children. I now wonder what gossip, if any, was engendered by the casual and regular abandoning of young children outside the ale houses of Kent. It’s unlikely that the practice would be viewed kindly in these more enlightened times. These days it seems that children of all ages are more than welcomed within the walls of even the most upmarket hostelries. As my own children are now well beyond that particular definition, I’m not sure that I find this prevailing acceptance that under twelve year olds should be welcome in every area of our lives much of a step forward. But I expect that’s simply because I have become a Grumpy Old Woman!
Saturday, 17 December 2016
Like all children growing up immediately after World War Two, Christmas was less a time for being showered with expensive toys and more a time for church-going, early evening carol singing under lamp posts and partaking in seasonal treats such as mince pies, tangerines and candied pineapple. Despite the lack of material things once the celebration of Guy Fawkes was over in early November, we turned with great determination to the celebration of Christmas, greatly anticipating the excitement that was soon to be ours. In Northfleet at St. Botolph’s School on The Hill we were by mid November deep in rehearsal for the annual `Show’ to which parents and friends were invited and by the first week of December lessons were halted for thirty minutes each day to allow us to make the two minute journey into the fourteenth century Church next door in order to practice the order of carols chosen for the end of term service. We sang the same pieces each year - `Once In Royal David’s City’, `The First Noel’, `It Came Upon The Midnight Clear,’ `Hark The Herald Angels Sing’, `Oh Come All Ye Faithful’, `While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks By Night’ and `Oh Little Town Of Bethlehem’ and how easily the verses slip into memory even now when I hear the initial refrain of each. And there were times when one or more of the traditional carols were also sung at the end of year concert though the event I remember best was the one where Betty Haddon sang `Alice Blue Gown’, Pearl Banfield and I headed a group dressed as Crinoline Ladies in crepe paper costumes to dance a waltz and a contingent of the noisiest boys marched across the makeshift stage maintaining that there was `A State Of War On The Nursery Floor’ whilst banging drums contrived from old biscuit tins. The excitement was intense. Then, quite suddenly school was finished and it was home to new Council Houses with fires in `tiled surrounds’ for the luckiest among us and back to the tiny workmen’s cottages where the heating was pre-Victorian for the rest of us. Strangely we did not seem to notice how poor we were at Christmas, theoretically the time when it should have been most obvious, so powerful was the excitement of the impending celebration. On Christmas Eve the Salvation Army Band toured the streets for the final time and we donned coats and scarves and stood under the lamp on the corner of Springhead Road to listen before being ushered indoors once more for mince pies with cocoa for the children and a tot of cherry brandy for the grown-ups. Later my father would take me to Midnight Mass at the Roman Catholic Church where I happily shunted off my term-time St. Botolph’s Anglicanism and once again became a devout Catholic child both fascinated by the high drama of the Mass but bored at the same time because it went on far too long. He in his overcoat, demob suit and white silk scarf intent upon appraising any woman under thirty attending alone, was always in a good mood whilst maintaining an air of studied piety. At this time of year both the Parish Priest, Father O`Connor and a clutch of black-clad nuns made a fuss of me and told me I was a good child, hoping to lure me back to the school in Springhead Road and on one occasion I was given Rosary Beads, ebony and silver. At the end of the mass there was generally a little Christmas time conversation between the attending congregation during which my father was able to chat with the piano teacher from the top of Springhead Road and both the Murphy sisters who ran the Brownie pack next to the Library, hands nonchalantly in the pockets of his overcoat and laughing too loudly at their jokes. Of course all children woke at dawn next day feverishly excited at the thought of what Father Christmas just might have brought with him and we were never let down because he always did bring something. One year I recall a red plastic dolls’ tea set from a stall at Gravesend Market, and another a delightful pile of second hand `annuals’- Rupert Bear and Toby Twirl. Breakfast on Christmas Day always began with mugs of sweet tea, laced with whiskey even for the children though I have absolutely no idea how and when this particular tradition began. There always followed a range of festive snacks including the essential candied fruit, nuts and tangerines all so fundamentally part of Christmas that to this day the slightest hint of a tangerine or satsuma aroma instantly flings me back over decades to the late nineteen forties. Christmas Dinner was served fashionably late, certainly not before two in the afternoon and was always a stuffed and roasted capon, mashed and roast potatoes, sprouts and a salty brown gravy followed by home-made Christmas Pudding and a white cornflour sauce heavily sweetened. My parents drank beer with this repast and my brother and I were deliriously excited to be given lemonade, exactly as if we were in the children’s room at a local pub. We stayed up late and listened to the radio and on Boxing Day we went visiting either to Crayford to my mother’s family or to Waterdales to my father’s, either way it was something I looked forward to because among my many cousins there was sure to be one who had been given a second hand bike or even a passed on china doll as Connie-on-my-father’s-side was one eventful year. Although my relationship with my father was still fraught with difficulties, these were largely happy festive seasons during which we sensibly drew a truce. This was all to change dramatically in 1951 the year he chose most inconveniently to die on twelfth of December just a few days after an afternoon of Christmas shopping in Gravesend with my mother. This was the year when quality toys began to reappear in shops and there was to be a Junior Meccano Set for my four year old brother and an Art Compendium for me. These were facts we knew because he had been saving judiciously since Guy Fawkes. We were not actually told, however, that he had died although at eleven years old I was aware that his face had suddenly become far too yellow for his own good. The Thursday morning when my mother ran to the corner shop to the nearest telephone, I hovered in the doorway of their room and studied him strangely anxiously and noted the over-yellowness against the white pillow slip, newly changed for the impending doctor’s visit. He opened too-yellow eyes momentarily and made some inconsequential comment about me not being late for school and that was the last time I saw him, the last time he spoke to me. There followed the strangely embarrassing situation of neighbours calling in giving gifts to my brother and myself, boxes of scented handkerchiefs, Mickey Mouse Soap, chocolates. None of this felt quite right and people were speaking far too quietly. A parent dying at Christmastime is distressing for everyone and the guidelines for how to deal with it are sparse. The subsequent Christmases were melancholy affairs even though my mother without fail always provided half a bottle of cherry brandy for mince pies, a small bottle of whiskey for tea and lemonade to drink with the roast chicken. Sometimes there were colouring books for my brother and often sensible socks and underclothes for me. When he shuffled off his mortal coil so precipitously that year when I was eleven and Bernard was four, our father deftly changed for ever the Festive Season, forcing us each year that followed to appraise and examine indeterminate ghosts of Christmas Past as indeed I am doing at this very moment.
Wednesday, 14 December 2016
Since my brother Bernard died in April this year I have received a number of messages from those who knew him long ago, some of them school friends and some who grew up in York Road, Northfleet and the surrounding streets. Until now they have all been male friends, each saddened to hear of his death and wanting to tell me what a surprise it was, or relate details of an incident that springs to mind when they think of him. A day or two ago quite out of the blue I was greatly surprised to hear from his first girlfriend. They had each been sixteen at the time of their relationship, an intense romantic liaison that greatly concerned my poor mother and undoubtedly her parents also. She was a very pretty young girl and Bernard was so very proud of her and extremely keen to show her off, especially to me as I was seven years his senior and he saw me as sophisticated beyond belief. Living in my London basement flat and working in Murrays Cabaret Club in Soho at that time I undoubtedly saw myself in the same light! I can remember meeting with them both to sip gin and tonics at the Coach & Horses on The Hill at Northfleet where none of the Sunday bar staff seemed unduly concerned as to their obvious youth. At that time Bernard was quite convinced that their future was inextricably joined and that he and she would adore each other for ever. Sadly that did not quite happen though he never forgot her and often in the years that followed, spoke of her with a great deal of affection, exhibiting a fondness that clearly irritated both the women he finally went on to marry. Bernard was four years old when our father died and had little memory of him though he floundered emotionally throughout his life because of the loss. In the years that followed he grew to be very like him in many ways having inherited the same charm and charisma, the same generosity, the same disregard for truth and the same inherent weakness of will where attractive women were concerned. It was these last personality traits that got him into a number of tight spots at times and caused so much unhappiness to those who loved him. And throughout his nearly sixty eight years of life he was possibly loved rather more than he deserved, and admired and even respected, as his father had been before him. At sixteen, at the time of his first love affair, however, he was in many ways still diffident and lacking in confidence with a social awkwardness that would take a decade or two to entirely disappear. And since I heard from his first love, I have pondered on these things once again of course. What a pleasant surprise to hear from the young girl who knew him at the very beginning of his eventful journey through Life.
Monday, 12 December 2016
My father did not feature in my early childhood and existed only as the photo on the wall, handsome, smiling, in his army uniform. Every night at bedtime I had to blow him a kiss. I knew that children had real fathers of course because even in wartime some still did; most though had what I suppose we would now call virtual fathers and that seemed a very satisfactory arrangement as far as I was concerned. He had been in the Eighth Army and his war was spent variously in Italy, Sicily and North Africa. He had loved the war and proved to be a natural soldier, rising rapidly through the ranks and though decidedly working class in origin was rumoured to be officer material. He was demobilised long after most husbands and fathers had returned and were back working again in local factories. He came back reluctantly with the aim of a rapid return to army life because what he really wanted was to become a `regular’. Towards the latter part of the war he had suffered some kind of medical condition, possibly Amoebic Dysentery which kept him in hospital for some weeks and afterwards convalescing for even longer. But he was spoken of regularly and from time to time there were letters and cards from him and once even an exciting parcel with dried bananas, dates and two dolls in strange costume. On VE day I was woken early, my mother waving red, white and blue hair ribbons in front of my face and jubilantly telling me that the war was over, all was going to be different from now on and my father would be coming home. This news, told to me again and again that morning as we drank our tea and ate our porridge, filled me with a great unease. Why was it so good that the war was over? The war just `was’. The war was what made life full of purpose. What was going to happen to us if it was over? And if everything was going to be different from now on was that necessarily a good thing? If it was true that my father was coming home what were we going to do with him? Would he live in our house, having his meals with us? Where on earth would he sleep? It might be better if he lived in the Working Men’s Hostel in Gravesend like some of the men who now emptied the rubbish bins. I had heard Joan Bedford’s mother discussing how good the conditions were there. Or perhaps he could rent a room from Mrs. Bessant’s daughter Ina who took in lodgers at Rosherville . Everyone said her `rates’ were reasonable. As days went on it became more and more obvious that my life as it had always been was definitely over and this was about to be celebrated in some style. On Saturday there was to be a street party with jelly and ice cream and little cakes with pink icing on them. Mrs. Robbins was making tray after tray of toffee apples. `My Dad is coming home!’ my cousin Pat told me as she and her mother tripped down our back yard path on the day of the party. Pat was going to attend the York Road party and I was going to attend the Iron Mill Lane one to ensure that we got plenty of partying. Aunt Martha was crying with joy and waving a telegram in my mother’s face, `My Paddy is coming back from Italy….I can’t believe it. I just can’t believe it. My Paddy’s never seen my little Pat….’ Little Pat Bounced up and down, anxious to be seen, but it transpired that was never to be as the next telegram received was one informing my aunt that her husband had been killed in a fall from an Italian roof whilst celebrating the end of the hostilities. I felt a bit confused and wondered if we would get a similar telegram and for a long time afterwards whenever I saw Pat I asked her about the outcome regarding the doll he had promised to send her from Italy and I couldn’t help noticing that her answers were always evasive. I had started school some months before my own father finally appeared and was, apparently, confronted by him when I emerged from the playground at 3.00pm. Instead of my mother, a strange man telling me he would take me home that day. I was not impressed and remained so for the next several years. He must have found life very difficult. I was the daughter he did not know. He had seen no part of my growing from baby to schoolgirl. He undoubtedly felt depressed, confused and inadequate and there were no army mates to laugh, joke or exchange trivial banter with, no camaraderie at all. In their place was a wife who had, after nearly six years of war, become used to managing alone and a suspicious and unlovable six year old daughter who clearly was not going to warm to him overnight. He had been plucked from trauma himself as a small child and brought up by convent nuns in a disciplined, clean and orderly environment. When they had finally tipped him out into the real world it had been harrowing but now the British Army had restored the order and regulation missing from his life for so long. He had reveled in the discipline, the good food, the regular pay and the respect that his rise through the hierarchy offered. His horizons had been greatly broadened now that he had seen the world and he was anxious for his family to join him in as rapid return as possible to army life. We too, would be able to see the world. He had undoubtedly had fantasies about introducing his family to a better life and was not prepared for my mother’s strenuous opposition which did not waver. Although he had many friends in the army, he now found it difficult to make friends. It was easy enough to exchange trivial conversation with neighbours but he had nothing in common with them and felt their values were empty. He was contemptuous of the bomb stories discussed with him. On a practical level in the army he had no money worries but now, if there was no possibility of returning, instead he had to find a job. He was reluctant to enter factory work. He disliked the appearance of the female factory workers in their turbans and peep toe shoes, their smoking and their `utility’ make-up. To him, in 1946, they compared unfavourably with women in uniform and after the initial euphoria of the welcome home from his many sisters-in-law, there was little sympathy for an ex-serviceman who did not immediately knuckle down to the mundane facts of life in post-war Britain. He resented the easy manner in which my mother now seemed to be able to manage household affairs and the fact that somehow her emotional dependence upon him had disappeared along with daily life in North Kent. To make matters even worse, having been exposed to Greek and Italian culture, he had developed a taste for foreign food and there had been an explosion of his intellectual development so that he was now intensely interested in art and opera. He took my mother to London to art exhibitions which were just beginning to reappear here and there. She was not totally appreciative. I had the greatest difficulty knowing what to call him and felt uncomfortable addressing him as `Daddy’ which was of course what both my parents wanted I clearly remember calling him `Uncle Bern’ once or twice because that’s what my cousin Margaret called him. Margaret remembered him fondly from before the war and delighted in his return. It seemed to me during that first post-war year that my father loved Margaret far more than he loved me and the feeling of him being a stranger persisted and subsequently always lurked beneath the surface of our relationship. Of course it did not occur to me that he would naturally respond warmly towards his excited niece with whom he had a remembered rapport and who ran into his arms eagerly; that it would be hard for him to feel similarly about the daughter who screamed hysterically when embraced. For the first few months of his return I insisted on giving his photograph on the wall a goodnight kiss rather than himself because I hated the strange, hard, stubbly feel of him and his constant presence in our house shocked and depressed me. I wished hard for him to go away again because the fact that my mother seemed to belong to him as well as to me was hard to comprehend. In so many ways he now became the prime focus of her attention and I was less important to her as he edged further into my place. He began to institute a number of rules that applied only to me. He insisted that I have a proper bedtime at seven o’clock, where once I had been allowed to sit up with my mother listening to the radio and drawing pictures as I did so. Now she seemed somehow perpetually pre-occupied with cooking him a `proper tea’ where previously we simply shared melted cheese on toast together. He tried very hard to take an interest in me but I rewarded this with suspicion. In spite of all the problems with flying bombs and broken sleep and streets from time to time demolished, the war that had initially deprived me of him, had offered a strangely comforting environment. People helped each other, I was a much cherished only child, my mother talked to me a lot, helped me with my drawings and taught me to write my name, read me passages from the newspaper and told me stories of her childhood. Despite the much talked of food rationing I don’t remember being hungry because bowls of porridge and slices of toast seemed plentiful enough. Once my father returned and life slowly got back to something akin to normal for the adults, things went downhill as far as I was concerned. Presumably he began to feel the same. He gave up trying to persuade my mother that life as an army wife would suit her. He got a job at the local cement works as a shift worker which meant that he was often available in the daytime to fetch me from school. This did not please me and so I began to maintain that I was big enough now, being seven years old, to walk home by myself. I said this with not too much conviction, hoping my mother would take over the collecting once more. She did not and so I ran the gauntlet of the dangerous big boys each afternoon. The big boys in my class, John Dyke, Billy Elliot and Peter Jackson struck terror in my heart. They were loud and untidy. They pushed each other into puddles, walked on walls and sang songs on the way home. There was no escaping them. They did not actually do anything to impede the progress of my daily journey from school to home but I was filled with alarm at the thought that they might. Each day I tried to be the very first one out of the classroom, streaking across the junior playground, towards home. My mother, always amazed at how quickly I covered the ground from school to home, advised me to walk `nicely’ with other girls like Milly Foreman or Joan Bedford. For almost a year, however, I declined to take this advice and continued my self inflicted training for the four minute mile. I was totally unaware that a far worse blight was on the horizon in the form of my baby brother. Just before my seventh birthday the midwife arrived and so did he – Bernard John Hendy, all nine pounds of him. My father came and collected me from playing in Milly Foreman’s yard at five in the afternoon and, bubbling with excitement, told me I had a baby brother and if I was very careful I would be able to hold his hand. He was upstairs in my old cot, beside the double bed which I used to share with my mother in the good old days during the Adolf Hitler years. I stuck my hand through the bars and was told to be careful with him. I could have cheerfully throttled him and indeed over the next few years tried to bring about his infant demise a number of times without any success. He became another close relative to despise because by now I realized that my dislike of my father was turning into something more tangible like hatred. My father was quite naturally immensely proud of my brother and could love him unreservedly as he noted every aspect of his growth from baby to small child. He was eager for him to grow bigger and stronger so that he could introduce him to the delights of fun fairs and country walking. His undisguised excited anticipation of the father-son relationship of the future filled me with apprehension and hardened my attitudes. He was a relatively devout man and went to Mass every Sunday if he was not working. My mother, whose attitude to the Church was an odd mixture of defiance and deference, generally avoided entering the building for anything other than a wedding or a funeral and certainly could not be accused of being pious. When it became clear that I had spent my first six years as a non-attender my father was horrified and quite determined to change all that. He took me to Mass himself as regularly as was possible, while my mother stayed home and cooked the Sunday dinner. The boring Sunday ritual did nothing to improve our relationship and I longed for Sunday shifts when he could only go to an evening service which was considered far too late for me. Ultimately I began to dread Sundays and that undercurrent of trepidation has stayed with me all my life. Because he had been brought up in an orphanage he had acquired basic standards of hygiene that my mother’s diddicai upbringing had been devoid of. He was shocked when he realised that I did not own a toothbrush and immediately bought me a bright pink celluloid Minnie Mouse one together with an even pinker tablet of Gibbs Toothpaste in a round tin. I hated the taste of it and rebelled immediately, telling him that my teeth would stay clean without all this palaver. Until he had reappeared in my life I had not known anyone who actually cleaned their teeth! Not only that, his horror knew no bounds when he found I had not been taught to wash my hands after visiting the lavatory and vainly tried to instill this habit into me, largely without much success. He took a great pride in his highly polished Sunday shoes and took to polishing mine for me which filled me with fury so that I took delight in scuffing them as much as possible on the way back from Mass. I had been accustomed to eating most meals, on my knee and with my fingers if I so wished, in front of the kitchen grate alongside my mother, listening to her chatter on either slandering her sisters or the neighbours and from time to time adding views of my own. Now he was back we had to eat sitting up at the kitchen table and I was compelled to use a knife and fork! My mother, for some rebellious reason which never became totally clear, had enrolled me at St. Botolph’s school which was Anglican although when discussing the matter by letter with my father before he returned, it had been agreed that I would of course be going to Our Lady Of The Immaculate Conception. He rectified this immediately and I was unceremoniously uprooted and told that I would love my new school. This lasted a few very miserable weeks and then for some reason, presumably instigated by my mother, I was returned once again to St. Botolph’s to my great relief. These disruptions to my life turned my dislike for my father into hard bitterness and accordingly over the next year my behaviour grew worse and worse although I was blissfully unaware of this and uncomprehending when it was regularly pointed out to me. It was in desperation I believe that he took to beating me. Now the beatings became more or less a regular event in my life. To me it seemed that I was thrashed for even the most minor infringement of the baffling rules – from the forbidden boiling of a kettle to provide a play bath for my doll to the strange incident where my two year old brother’s arm was apparently wrenched from his shoulder joint. Between beatings, however, he continued to make valiant efforts to build a paternal bond. He took me on day trips to London to visit museums and art galleries which except for the Egyptian tombs at the British Museum, I found relatively boring. He bought up large quantities of second hand books, mostly encyclopaedias but interspersed with Charles Dickens at auctions which I was, somewhat guardedly, more interested in but they were way beyond my comprehension which baffled him. He was what was in those days called a `womaniser’ and had over the years acquired a succession of female friends recruited mostly from the Gravesend & North Kent Bus Services, clippies with names like Else and Glad and finally one called Sadie of whom he become inordinately fond. As I have said he had a weakness for women in uniform. Despite this, however, I now believe he was basically a good man, eager to do his best for his family. Unhappily, because the war disrupted any vestige of essential social cement, his homecoming was never going to be a success. I have no doubt that many others of my age and background have similar sad stories about fathers returning to the bosom of the family.
Friday, 9 December 2016
When I was growing up in the Northfleet and Gravesend area of Kent in the nineteen forties and fifties, there seemed to be a pub on every corner and, unlike today, each of them flourishing. Although neither of my parents could have ever been described as dedicated drinkers, they seemed to spend a great deal of time on Licensed Premises. Some had what were called `Children’s Rooms’ where under eighteens were allowed to sip on orange juice or lemonade and flick through filthy piles of fly ridden Beano comics. If no such facility was available we simply hung around outside which was infinitely more lively. My mother always proclaimed loudly that she could not abide alcohol and told terrifying and possibly exaggerated stories about her own parents’ drunkenness which, if they were all to be believed should have resulted in neither she nor her siblings reaching adulthood. Later I learned that a couple of infants had indeed possibly died from being slept upon by a drunken parent. We had pubs of course where we as a small family group ventured on a regular basis but when visitors in the form of aunts, grandmother and numerous cousins descended we spread our patronage far and wide. I dimly remember The Black Eagle in Galley Hill Road near Swanscombe where my cousin Pat and I played hopscotch on the pavement and fought over a packet of crisps. That very same evening I seem to remember us moving on to The Plough in Stonebridge Road, or was it The Ingress Tavern? Some ten years ago The Plough still appeared to be open if memory serves me correctly. There were pubs aplenty in Northfleet High Street during those post war years – The Railway Tavern and the Edinburgh Castle being our most favoured with The Huggens Arms in nearby Creek Road, and The Rose in Wood Street coming a close second. Old Nan told a tale or two about a place she remembered from years past called The Blue Anchor that even then no longer seemed to exist and added that even if it did she would never `set foot inside the place’ and we assumed that she had at some time been unceremoniously ejected. Neither would she set foot inside The Little Wonder at 78 The High Street so presumably there was a story to be told there too. My older cousin Margaret liked to go to the Marquis of Granby or The Coach & Horses, both situated on The Hill, close by St. Botolph’s Church because then we could roam the churchyard that even then was derelict and offered all kinds of amusement. Infrequently we boldly entered The Queen’s Head at number 39 The Hill though my mother maintained they were `toffee nosed’ in there and she didn’t feel comfortable. When my father managed to purchase his first motor bike with sidecar (an Ariel I seem to remember) we embarked into new and to me until then unfamiliar areas patronizing The Bridge Inn and The Huntsman in Dover Road East and even The Six Bells in Old Perry Street. Occasionally we went to The Fleet Tavern in Waterdales and met up with my father’s oldest brother Uncle Walter and his wife, Aunt Lou. On such occasions I played sedately with my cousin Connie, fearful of the wrath of this particular uncle who ruled over his large family of mostly boys in a manner that was truly terrifying. At some stage in nineteen forty seven there was great excitement when The Battle of Britain in Coldharbour Road, Shears Green opened where there was not only a children’s room with lots of books to read but also a garden with swings. Some years later a local manor house appeared to be converted into the New Battle Of Britain and the old building was demolished. Decades on it seems that this iconic pub has teetered on the threat of demolition once more. On really special occasions when perhaps a wedding anniversary was to be celebrated, or Christmas was almost upon us we self-consciously entered The Tollgate Inn on the old Roman Road, Watling Street dressed in our best with my mother trying to appear as though frequenting such upmarket places was simply a daily occurrence. Public houses, Ale Houses, Beer Halls, Taverns - in those days these were, even for teetotalers, of necessity the centre of any community. Weddings were invariably celebrated in dusty rooms above the Public Bars as were engagement celebrations and sometimes twenty first birthdays. Theoretically we children were definitely banned from licensed premises but we were all totally familiar with the convivial though slightly tense bar atmosphere, the dark polished surfaces and mirrors with gold lettering in need of cleaning, the smell of stale sweat and yesterday’s spilt beer. We never seemed to patronize any of the riverside pubs between Northfleet and Gravesend such as The India Arms, The Half Moon or The Ship all along The Shore, or The Royal Charlotte in Dock Row or The Red Lion in Crete Hall Road. Later I learned that these were said to be the haunts of my father and Sadie the bus conductress over some months in nineteen fifty when his predilection for women in uniform appeared to be at its height. In the years following his death in 1951 my mother would avert her eyes from these buildings whenever we passed. Nothing would have persuaded her to darken their doorsteps. Strangely, neither would she ever consent to go into any of the pubs that were closest to York Road, where we lived. Never once did she sample a Half of Bitter or a Milk Stout in The Brewery Tap in Dover Road or the nearby Leather Bottel despite its antiquity and history, certainly not The Dover Castle, and under no circumstances, The Prince Albert in Shepherd Street or The British Volunteer in Buckingham Road. These latter two featured large in my life however on those Friday and Saturday evenings in summer when the crescendo of voices lustily joining in the last sing-song of the evening penetrated my bedroom enough to make sleep impossible. Undoubtedly those far off, long gone pub sounds somehow or other, for better or for worse became central to the sounds of childhood for a generation of post war working class children.
Monday, 5 December 2016
Rozzie who has worked in the media for over thirty years rang yesterday evening with more than an edge of disbelief in her voice. `We heard that your PM has resigned – in the middle of the night too! What’s the story?’ I waited for a full five seconds before pointing out that to be fair it hadn’t been the middle of the night here. She ignored what I had hoped was irony and said that in her long experience of reporting what went on in the Hallowed Halls of Power, Prime Ministers just didn’t `up and resign’ at the very peak of their popularity and success; there must be more to it. I agreed I had heard the rumours too but it was hard to know what to make of them. The paedophile ring for instance. Believing the PM to be personally involved on a regular basis was tough, especially as its HQ was said to be in Dunedin which, when you came to think about it logically, was at least as far away from his home in Parnell, as Edinburgh was from her own bijou basement flat in West Kensington. The mere travel arrangements involved would be likely to offset much of the idiosyncratic gratification. I added that furthermore I didn’t give much credence to the more recent accusation that he had personally helped in the disposal of the bodies of two young men over the Huka Falls either. It was a decent drive from Auckland in the middle of the night for one thing. Rozzie asked if they had numbered among the Dunedin victims but I felt that was unlikely as they were said to be in their late teens or early twenties which hardly qualified them as children. After some discussion we both came to the conclusion that the claims revolving around the Dunedin group of lowlifes had in all probability emerged in the first place from somebody’s vivid imagination. `What about the financial decisions he’s been making to benefit his rich mates though?’ Rozzie rarely diverged from a core line of questioning so not for the first time I explained that I found it hard to believe he cared enough about his mates to make major fiscal choices on their behalf, and in any case if they were in the same league as himself they were probably wealthy enough already. I added that this particular PM was pretty bloody well off – so well off in fact that he chose to donate most of his Prime Ministerial income to charity. Rozzie was uncharacteristically silent for a while before saying in a voice that was almost deferential, `Blimey I never knew that – you would never get that from our lot over here.’ I then had to admit that you rarely got it from our own lot down here either but added, just to be honest, that there were still those who found a great deal to dislike about him and you only had to glance through social media sites to see that although the spite and venom that featured large was singularly at odds with the plaudits coming from the Real and much Wider World. She wanted to know what my own view was and I said that I was particularly non political and perhaps not especially qualified to comment but even so if she was pressing me I couldn’t find a great deal to fault him on. She said she was definitely pressing me so I added that his greatest strength in my own opinion, was that he was a polite man, slow to snarl and heap insults upon others; this seemed to generally distinguish him in the political arena. `What promotes all the odium from some then? There must be some basis to it.’ Again, she was nothing if not persistent and sounded genuinely mystified. Throwing caution to the winds I ventured that I had come to the conclusion that a great many of his opponents were only truly happy if they had a focus for their overall dissatisfaction with life and a popular Prime Minister often fitted the bill very nicely. Quite apart from all that, in a small country like New Zealand there were perhaps too many personal expectations laid at the feet of the PM. There was a tendency to want he/she who had attained this elevated position to behave more like a social worker than a leader on the world stage. Rozzie had to admit that there was little chance of expecting social-worker-like concerns from Theresa May or any of her immediate predecessors. As one who could distinctly recall the personal foibles of those from yesteryear such as Margaret Thatcher and even stretching as far as Harold Wilson and Harold MacMillan I found myself agreeing that very little empathy for the personal problems that beset the Little Man or Woman arose in much abundance from any of them either.
Thursday, 1 December 2016
Met up with Jennifer yesterday in what remains of our usual city coffee shop that now appears to be part of a war zone, surrounded as it is by cranes and fallen masonry. We discussed, among other things blog merging (see https://jenniferbarraclough.wordpress.com), DNA, the town where we both grew up, eighteenth century pleasure gardens, the merits of the Honda Jazz as a reliable vehicle, how she learned to swim in the murky Thames and why I cannot swim at all. Jennifer had found a compilation of Kentish Rhymes assembled by John Alden hiding on one of her late mother’s bookshelves which she thought might make an interesting addition to my recent reflections on growing up in Kent. A fascinating little volume with verses relating to Blean, Ashford, Tenterden, Tonbridge, Maidstone, Sittingbourne and even The Hundred of Hoo. Nothing directly relating to Gravesend or Northfleet but one can’t expect perfection. Before we parted, she to the ferry across to Devonport and me to the Nespresso shop on the corner of Queen Street, we briefly commented on our most recent contributions to literature – her novella `Unfaithful Unto Death’ and my memoir of the 1960s, `In Disgrace With Fortune, neither of which are threatening to break records. Then she said comfortingly, `Well we never sell as many as we deserve to do we?’ - and of course we never do!