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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!

Sunday, 14 May 2017

When A Tiger Ate An Usherette Called Iris

People don’t talk much about Going To The Pictures these days so maybe they simply don’t go or more likely they have a more up to date and conventional term for the pastime like Seeing a Movie. Back in those years following the war we definitely went to the Pictures and to do that we went to a Picture House. As I’ve said previously my own favourite Picture House was the Wardona in Northfleet though I frequented the place only rarely because my mother was sure I would Catch Things there. The things she most feared me catching were Nits and TB. She favoured The Majestic in Gravesend which was flashily decorated in red and gold. Old Nan who knew everything about The Pictures said it had opened in 1931 and at the time had a café for patrons and four dressing rooms for the convenience of those appearing in Live Shows. I don’t actually remember any Live Shows but I suppose there must have been some at one time. It was certainly a popular place in the late 1940s with long queues outside on some Saturday nights, depending upon what was showing of course. At popular times there was an organist called Reggie New and an usher who walked up and down the queue calling out, `Seats in all places’. When I was very small I have a faint memory of us going to see Casablanca there which I found exceedingly boring . We also saw Bambi and Snow White which were both considerably less tedious even though the forest fire was alarming and the witch terrifying.

Of the four Gravesend cinemas my own preference was The Regal. To be perfectly honest I was not keen on frequenting The Majestic by myself especially when attempting to get into an age restricted programme because the woman in the ticket office was particularly astute at querying if you were really fourteen or actually only twelve. If you were in fact only eleven that could be quite awkward despite the plush surroundings. The Regal was less lavish and had been designed by someone called Charles Lovell opening as long ago as 1914. It had 750 seats in the auditorium and over 300 in the balcony as well as two boxes for the local elite. It had originally been called the Gem Picture Theatre but in 1934 it was taken over by Union Cinemas, spruced up and renamed The Regal. Old Nan clearly remembered the re-opening in May of that year because she and my grandfather had come all the way from Crayford to attend and catch a glimpse of not only Jessie Matthews but Doris and Elsie Waters also. It was clearly quite an occasion and after the excitement of rubbing shoulders with the stars they had treated themselves to a fish supper in The High Street before downing a number of Gin & Tonics at The Three Daws. This story, told a number of times as I was growing up did not impress me at all because I had no idea who Jessie Matthews was and only a dim awareness of Elsie & Doris Waters who were to me, two very boring radio personalities who seemed to say things that made my mother and the Aunts laugh a lot. The best feature of The Regal as far as I was concerned was that the staff in the ticket office were usually not quite as fussy as those at The Majestic and because of this eleven and twelve year olds were privy to a wide and exciting range of restricted programmes that these days would not raise an eyebrow.

Regal fussiness was more to do with allotting seating and the two usherettes were quite determined that anyone who looked under the age of fifteen must sit as far Down The Front as possible and preferably in the first two rows, in fact in the cheapest seats, tickets for which I seem to recall were a mere nine-pence. This was usually easily enforceable because child patrons generally had in fact purchased the cheapest seats and in any case in those days as a rule children did what adults told them to unless there was a fool-proof way of not doing so.

My mother was not in favour of the cheapest seats because she had read somewhere that viewing from too close a proximity to the screen would inevitably lead to blindness in later life. She firmly believed that my Grandmother’s cataracts were a consequence of this habit. Therefore although we were not as frequent cinema attenders as our neighbours, when we did go we always sat At The Back, in the Good Seats, sometimes paying as much as one and nine-pence for a matinee performance. So when my brother and I were sent off on a Saturday afternoon in March 1953 to see `The Greatest Show On Earth’ starring the dashing and handsome Cornell Wilde with whom I had fallen passionately in love, although I was not quite thirteen and Bernard only six years old we were given the exact money and told to only buy Best Seats. I importantly joined the ticket office queue and duly purchased two one and nine-penny tickets. It was quite a surprise therefore when presenting them to the bored afternoon shift usherette to be ordered with a simple flash of her torch to `Go down the front’. I carefully held the tickets up again for inspection and said firmly, `I’ve paid for back row tickets – one and nine-pence each!’ Looking a little impatient and raising her voice she flashed the all-important torch down the aisle, `All children down the front,’ she said abruptly and quelling my next protest before I could actually utter it she added, `And no lip if you don’t mind.’

In fact I did mind because I had been about to enlighten her about the blindness that could eventuate from sitting too close to the screen. I minded very much and had begun to feel just a little bit fearful of a possible fight but also indignant. Bernard tugged at my hand anxiously and looked as if he was about to cry, `Let’s do what she says,’ he urged. But I had already decided to ignore her because Right was on my side and so I began to drag him into one of the back row seats whereupon she took his other arm and started to propel him towards the front of the auditorium with her torch. Infuriatingly he obediently went ahead of her intent upon not missing the beginning of the afternoon programme where the Pathe News might still be showing dramatic footage of the devastating recent tidal surge that had even affected people we knew of in Northfleet and killed hundreds that we didn’t know at all. But I had already begun to feel the stirrings of fury that in subsequent years would become all too familiar a sensation when face to face with injustice and discrimination. Rushing ahead of the huge arc of her torch I pulled him back, holding his upper arm firmly with one hand and the one and nine-penny tickets now becoming creased and sweaty with the other. On the way in I had idly noticed a door that said Manager’s Office. Managers I knew had power and sorted out problems. `I’m going to see the Manager,’ I said firmly, `Because you shouldn’t be making us sit in cheap seats when we’ve got tickets for dear seats.’ She shrugged but just a little diffidently.

Bernard had begun to cry properly now, big tears rolling down his cheeks, `I just want to see the circus people,’ he said. I told him he would definitely see the circus people because the Manager would sort out the problem and as I spoke I imagined a performing tiger tearing out the throat of the odious woman with the torch, forcing her to drop it in the aisle as she screamed in anguish, vainly trying to fend off the animal but not before it wrenched her right arm out of her shoulder. This particular circus scene was so very pleasing that I pictured it all over again before plucking up the necessary courage to knock on the door that said Manager’s Office.

I banged on the door as loudly as I could but nothing happened until I knocked for the third time. He was short and plump and looked ill-tempered; patches of underarm sweat were evident on his otherwise whiter than white shirt. He had blue braces and a jacket draped over the chair-back beside him in the tiny space. `What do you want?’ he asked irritably glancing at Bernard whose nose was now running because of all the tears.
Battling the inner turmoil I was feeling I explained the problem and also elaborated on the reasons why, the danger of blindness in later life emanating from the first rows of the stalls. I showed him the creased and now very damp tickets which he smoothed on his blotter, nodding as he did so, `Yes these are back stalls all right’ he said. Still looking exasperated he led the way back into the auditorium which was now nicely filling and called to the abhorrent usherette, `Iris - these customers have the correct tickets for back seating,’ he said.
She shrugged again and told him that the kiddies had seemed to have lost the tickets and if only she had seen them there wouldn’t have been a problem in the first place.

`She’s a liar,’ I said and turned to Bernard who was still weeping but more quietly now. He was in no state to support me
The Manager sat us in the back row just as the Pathe Gazette rooster appeared on the screen. A moment or two later he returned with a packet of Polo Mints which he handed to Bernard who stopped crying at once.
Despite the undoubted attractions of Cornell Wilde, Trapeze Artist, I didn’t feel entirely normal for at least half an hour, endlessly reliving the bloody demise of the much despised Iris, she whom the circus tiger pinned to the sloping aisle of The Regal Cinema and then consumed so completely that all that was left of her by intermission was the abandoned torch still shining its arc towards the screen. Beside me my brother now cheerfully munched on Polo Mints.

As we waited for the bus home he said, sounding suddenly very grown up, `It’s worth complaining isn’t it Jean?’
I nodded and tried to appear sophisticated, still feeling edgy and ill at ease about what had happened.
Decades later, on a visit back to Gravesend after The Regal had become first a Bingo Hall and then the United Church of the Kingdom of God, I was abruptly reminded of that afternoon when I had been ardently in love with Cornell Wilde and when a tiger ate an usherette called Iris.

Saturday, 29 April 2017

Adjusting What The Doctor Ordered

Our doctor was always Dr Outred of De Warren House on the London Road. My mother maintained he was definitely the best doctor in the area, much better than Dr Crawford on The Hill and that was because he was a surgeon as well as being an ordinary run-of-the-mill doctor and that signalled being Extra Special! That’s not to say that we were in the habit of consulting him all that frequently because back in those days it cost half a crown a visit and that meant the benefits of each possible consultation had to be weighed carefully in advance. Not something to be rushed into. So when my mother had some kind of abscess in her throat during the winter of 1942 she put up with it for several days before consulting Dr Outred who apparently swiftly lanced it giving her a story to dine out on for several years to come, had she been in the habit of dining out which of course she was not. The lancing, she informed anyone who would listen, was on account of him being a Surgeon and possessed of a certain amount of skill with several varieties of blade. Subsequent to the drama of the lancing she felt so much better that her overall faith in him increased mightily.

He then had the foresight to add to his overall mystique by saving my life when I was four years old and suffering from Pneumonia. I should explain that it was not even Ordinary Pneumonia either, but the Double variety and although I have never been entirely clear about what separates the Ordinary from the Double, the dramatic event itself I actually remember with reasonable clarity. I had been put to bed in my pink and cosy winceyette nightgown well wrapped in blankets with the added precaution of a roaring fire in my bedroom. Feeling decidedly unwell I idly observed the giant sized wooden Dutch Dolls that entered the room carrying a trestle table which they set up at the bottom of my bed before calmly and methodically consuming the contents of a wicker hamper. I watched in fascination as they munched their way through a number of pink iced cakes decorated with cherries, aware that had I been feeling just a little better I might well have been envious. My mother hovered over me with hot lemon juice laced with honey and at some stage my condition was deemed to be such that Old Mr Bassant from next door went to call for the doctor to come which perhaps meant crossing the road to Simms’ shop to use the telephone. By the time he arrived I was sitting on the curtain rail above my own bed, alongside a number of hunched and ugly shiny bronze goblin-like creatures that I remember thinking looked about the size of those strange individuals who lived inside the wireless in the kitchen, those that read the news and told jokes that made the grown-ups laugh. Perhaps they were indeed from the wireless because it was feasible now I had become much smaller that I would soon be going to live with them on the shelf in the corner of the kitchen next to the scullery door. I hoped I would be able to still see my mother from inside the wireless. It was possible that the front panel also contained a window big enough for those inside to observe what was going on in the parallel world of full-size humankind. I certainly hoped so.

And while these jumbled thoughts occupied me I calmly witnessed Special Dr Outred who was also a Surgeon peeling the layers of clothing from me and looking disapprovingly at the banked up fire before striding to the window beneath me and to my mother’s horror opening it wide. Even the goblin people muttered to each other when that happened. Then I was given a most Magical injection of what was described to the neighbours the following day as a Wonder Drug. My life had been saved and I then recovered in a most remarkable manner.

All in all during those wartime years my mother felt she had a lot to thank Dr Outred for although later when he killed my father she naturally enough changed her mind and never felt quite the same about him again. To be completely fair it was Old Nan who first decided that he had been responsible for my father’s death by Pissing About instead of sending him Over the Orspital where apparently they would have Sorted Him in No Time. All this was of course in the future and should not concern us at the moment because for the purposes of this particular narrative, Dr Outred still maintains his elevated position which was close to the Blessed Saints themselves.

In those days a number of family doctors did their own dispensing and ours was one of them. Patients were not handed their medicines at the time of consultation and were required to return for them later when they would be ready on the table in the general waiting room in rows of boxes and bottles labelled with names. This meant that typically the table hosted an interesting range of potions and multi-coloured pills awaiting collection by a steady stream of the sick or their envoys. It was a reasonably seamless system.

One particular visit to the surgery at De Warren House, London Road, stands out very well indeed because my mother for some reason wanted to speak to Dr Outred without me by her side and so she left me in the waiting room with a Beano comic to occupy me. Many years later I came to understand that this consultation had something to do with my father recently being briefly Home On Leave and some kind of nasty infection that had passed from him to her. Strangely, on that chilly winter evening we were the only patients and when the Beano comic’s attraction began to pall I turned my attention to the eye-catching array of medications awaiting collection. There were pills of every hue in some of the little glass bottles as well as the standard and exceedingly dull white ones and also tall bottles of red, blue and green tonics and cough mixtures. As I studied them it began to seem very unfair to me that some specifically selected people who were undoubtedly Special like the doctor himself, were given a whole bottle of red pills or blue ones whilst other lesser mortals were destined to merely receive the white ones. Some years later when Papa’s Ice Cream Parlour Over-the-Town began to make a range of flavours once more, I likened this particular situation to being doled out vanilla ice cream when others were lucky enough to receive chocolate or strawberry because we all knew that vanilla was definitely not a real flavour at all but just another way of saying Plain. However that comparison was yet to come as at the time of my mother’s tearful consultation Papa was still simply serving cups of tea and broken biscuits and I don’t think I had experienced the joys of ice cream of any variety but that’s probably beside the point.

That early winter evening in 1944 no matter which way I looked at it, I felt that a grave injustice was being done to some of Dr Outred’s faithful followers so I decided with all the wisdom of a four year old, that it was up to me to bring some balance to the situation. With the waiting room still eerily empty I began a redistribution of the pills by first emptying all the containers and then methodically refilling them so that each recipient would now get at least one or two of the nicely coloured ones. Quite an effort was involved but by the time I had finished and turned my attention to the more complex problem of the bottled liquids, not one of the Northfleet sick that evening would suffer the indignity of having to swallow Vanilla Pills. Relishing my new role as a Junior Warrior for Justice I was in no doubt that they would be quite delighted although in the furthest recesses of my mind there began a slight uncertainty with regard to how the doctor himself might view the matter.

Almost as soon as that misgiving occurred to me I was left in no doubt as to his position on the matter and even after all these years I cannot forget the look of disbelief and fury on his face. I knew he was itching to take to me physically because his hands, at the level of my shoulders, clenched and unclenched as he hissed at me. He said that I was a totally irresponsible and ill-disciplined child and that my wayward behaviour would result in a lot of extra work for him. My mother, horrified and increasingly tearful, repeatedly apologised for me. That behaviour wasn’t like me, apparently because usually I was as Good as Gold. He looked as if he did not believe her and said something about me needing Much Firmer Guidance and she assured him she was going to Give Me What For when I got home. I rather imagined he seemed just a little placated when she said that.

She talked about the What For I was going to get all the way back along London Road and down Springhead Road which didn’t make the walk home very pleasant, especially when she promised it would be the Hiding of my Life. I tried in vain to broach the issue of Natural Justice when it came to those who were unfairly doled out Vanilla Pills but she just didn’t seem to be interested.

Thursday, 20 April 2017

Navigating Northfleet High Street

If we went shopping in Gravesend my mother always told me that we were going Over-the-Town and usually we took a bus there and back. Shopping in Northfleet meant we were going Down-The-High-Street and invariably we walked. When I was very young, perhaps five, six or seven years old this was quite a trek and my heart would sink at the thought but there was no point in arguing and suggesting a bus ride because I knew we weren’t Made Of Money. We would set off directly after our midday dinner armed with shopping bags, one made of string and that was the one I might be allowed to carry later.
Usually I was already complaining by the time we had walked up Springhead Road and reached The Hill where we might well Run-Into a neighbour returning from the very same mission and this meant stopping for a chat. The chat one day with Grace Bennett was about bananas because Ripleys had them, causing great excitement and her Joan was going to have one on toast for her tea. The thing I remember most vividly about Ripleys is the staff member with hair the colour of Kentish Cobnuts who smiled a great deal, flashing beguiling glimpses of gold teeth. I remember nothing of the bananas except being told that Joan Bennett getting a whole one on her toast meant she was Spoilt-Rotten.

On we walked, past Dr Crawford’s surgery in Granby Place, past Horlocks garage and St Botolph’s Vicarage, behind grey walls and almost but not quite hidden by trees and then to Council Avenue. Here we might very well stop again if we Ran Into Mrs Ditchburn who had a family connection with Ditchburn’s Newsagency and not only that, a famous relative called Ted as well. Ted was goalkeeper for Tottenham Hotspur and much revered by all the boys I knew and most of their fathers. My mother greatly approved of Mrs Ditchburn and so the chat would be an extended one so Little Margery and I could play pretend hopscotch on the paving stones and I would admire her shiny black shoes and wish I had some just the same.

We then had to pass a number of very boring places like the Gas Board Showrooms and the Food Office that had something to do with Cod Liver Oil and free Orange Juice, both of which I treated with great suspicion, before we got to the High Street proper which I always felt started at The Wardona Cinema and there my spirits lifted. In those days most cinemas showed two feature films plus a newsreel and sometimes a cartoon as well and the programme was changed at least twice a week. This meant The Wardona was a busy and exciting place but my mother disapproved of it and thought you might Catch Nits from the seats because it wasn’t very clean so if we went to the cinema at all it was always in Gravesend and usually to The Majestic. I preferred The Wardona, however, because all my classmates and neighbours went to the Saturday Morning Children’s Picture Show and once in a while, though not very often, I was allowed to join them. Oh the excitement of those Saturday mornings hemmed in on all sides by unruly screeching schoolchildren some with pre-schoolers in tow who, surprisingly despite the noise level often fell asleep. For sixpence you got a full three hours of entertainment and came out with a thumping headache and possibly sometimes with nits. Sadly, years later after the expense of a complete upgrade and a Grand Opening featuring stars from a famous TV soap opera, the Wardona closed its doors for good. The Grand Opening had been a highlight in my early teenage life because although we did not at the time own a TV set ourselves, everyone else did and I had actually seen two episodes of The Grove Family Saga at the Bennetts in Buckingham Road, sitting with Joan who was Spoilt-Rotten whilst our mothers spoke in low voices of matters we must not be privy to. So the grand re-opening coming at a time when I felt I was destined to be a famous actress meant that I made sure I was first in line to smile and chat to the young girl who cut the ribbon and made the speeches and who I desperately yearned to emulate and whose name I now completely forget. I even featured in the extreme left corner of the photo that appeared in The Gravesend & Dartford Reporter which was of course totally thrilling.

However, long before the demise of the Wardona I always experienced a frisson of something like excitement when passing this particular area of the High Street because adjacent in the Astoria Dance Hall was Marjorie Shades Dancing School where the especially fortunate girls in my class at school like Helen Gunner and Pearl Banfield went every Wednesday for Tap Dancing and sometimes on Saturday too for Ballet Classes at one and sixpence a time. My mother would not be persuaded about the dance classes even though my cousin Pat from Crayford had been learning Tap for more than two years and now danced better than Ginger Rogers. No matter how good a dancer I was sure I would become I knew we had better things to do with our money.

By the time we were deep into the High Street proper I had usually stopped complaining about being tired and the shops themselves became suddenly more interesting. Treadwells the Butcher and Knowles the Baker were sure to be visited followed by Pearsons the Grocer and even Frosts simply to look at radios and electric bar heaters. Frosts was an exciting place because posters on the wall advised that Pianos were For Hire or Available on Hire Purchase. In addition they had Radio Sets & Components of every description and any Overhauls were carried out by Expert Workmen. What could be better than that?

At times we bought a few mint humbugs from Barratts where the old man and his daughter had sold sweets and cigarettes for years and where nearly a decade later he was to refuse to sell me a box of matches because I did not buy cigarettes to go with them and I threatened to report him to the Police Station. He advised me to do my worst but the unhelpful sergeant at the desk told me he didn’t have to sell anything to anyone if he didn’t want to and that was the Law whether I liked it or not. I did not like it so some months after this unpleasant and to my mind most unfair interlude, disguised with sunglasses and a fake American accent, I ventured into Barratts again clutching twopence in my right hand glad to see the old man still there behind the counter. I asked him to weigh me up a quarter of a pound each of humbugs, toffees, sherbert lemons, liquorice allsorts and dolly mixtures which he did. I asked for half an ounce of Hearts of Oak and some Rizla cigarette papers together with twenty Players’ Weights and - oh yes, as an afterthought and so, so casual – a box of matches please. This impressive range of potential purchases was now lined up neatly on the counter before me, Old Barratt looking as Old Nan would say, As-Pleased-As-Bleeding-Punch. I picked up the matches, placed the two pennies on the counter and said I’d changed my mind and I’d just have the matches today thank you before sauntering out into the sunshine of the High Street once more, heart pounding. He followed me only to the doorway which I found surprising, gesticulating and blaspheming . Of course I was much too cowardly to ever risk venturing onto the premises again.

In 1949 a visit to Mrs. Bodycombe’s hardware shop was a must on a Friday for Reckitts Blue for the Monday wash then quite often we Dropped In on Little Nannie Constant in Hamerton Road to make sure she was all right and to drink a cup of tea. In winter it would be nearly dark when we ventured up Station Road again and past the Old Mission Hall where if we were lucky we might hear the Northfleet Silver Band in rehearsal and I could stand for a few minutes transfixed to hear Rossini Overtures and John Philip Sousa Marches, music that mesmerised me. Fifty years later the same melodies at a band concert in Auckland, New Zealand were to conjure up immediate memories of Northfleet on a cold and frosty early evening, the long gone buildings frozen somehow in time and memory.

The High Street back then wasn’t all shops by any means because a number of people actually lived there in brick houses facing the street including Bill Moody who had a Coach business and ran it from his front room and had Been-There- For-Donkey’s-Years. In the years following my father’s death we sometimes took day tours with Moodys’ to places like Brighton and Hastings, The Devil’s Punch Bowl and Whipsnade Zoo. Surprisingly at twelve and thirteen I would more than likely be allowed to choose the trip and the one I remember most clearly was The Devil’s Punch Bowl because of the endless Monica Edwards books I had read. Oh the excitement of driving by the very place where the mythical Thornton Family had their farm and rode their ponies and lived their fascinating lives! For a brief moment I imagined I could simply reach out and touch them.

Homeward bound from High Street shopping meant walking on the river side of the street, dropping into Hardy’s the Drapers and perhaps the huge and forbidding Post Office. Past the photographer where both my brother and I had our first baby photographs taken, each of us five months old, proudly sitting all by ourselves in smocked white silk baby frocks and looking astonishingly alike. The same photographer where I had yet another photo taken at the age of three or four to send to my father in North Africa. Wearing my best blue satin dress I stare at the camera, unsmiling from beneath a newly trimmed for the occasion fringe.

Datlen’s always put out their Frying-Now notice in the early evening and the smell of freshly fried haddock and chips was so tantalising it brought tears to the eyes. But we always bought our Fish & Chips from Shepherd Street though possibly Datlen’s wet fish might be scanned for suitability if it was a Friday. Very occasionally we might buy a pint of shrimps for tea from Edgeley’s the shellfish shop nearby where they were measured in a pewter mug and firmly wrapped in newspaper then put into the very bottom of the string bag that I might now be allowed to carry, bumping uncomfortably against my legs. Less exciting was the Cooked Meats shop operated by Mr Davies who was the cousin of one of our neighbours and so had to be briefly chatted to if he was reasonably idle. I liked the grocery store with the musty sawdust smell where a Mrs. Lambert who had Been-There-Since-the-Year-Dot sold sterilised milk from Mortlock Dairy in tall glass bottles with interesting red and black stoppers which we never bought because my mother maintained it wasn’t healthy and you might catch things. Aunt Mag told her she was wrong because it was Sterilised which meant it must be good and anyway she had used it herself for years with no ill effect. Mrs Lambert also sold salt in huge lumps that looked like ice which again we never bought because you didn’t know whose hands had been all over it.

Bareham’s the Barber was always busy and that’s where my father usually went for his short back and sides and where he took my brother for his very first grown up haircut just before he started school. Until then my mother trimmed his hair herself but in September 1951 he strode off to Bareham’s hand in hand with the father who was to die within months, like a Big-Boy, the two of them on a trip together Bernard would years later remember no details of no matter how hard he struggled to recall it. Once my mother booked in to the Ladies Department operated by Miss Joyce for a Toni Perm and I was allowed to wait while she had it and look at all the magazines and not make a nuisance of myself. I must have been at least nine or ten because I was certainly a good enough reader to be both shocked and not a little confused by the problem pages of the magazines of the day where writers asked the advice of Aunt Evelyn on such matters as How Much Intimacy To Allow My Fiancè Before Marriage and Why Do I Not Seem To Be Able To Conceive. I knew enough of the facts of life to understand that Conceiving had something to do with Falling-For-a-Baby and that was a topic that must not be discussed even though it could be seen as both a very good or a very bad thing depending upon the circumstances. I was definitely much more puzzled about what Intimacy might mean. As our household was not Made of Money we did not go in for magazines and so I rarely had the opportunity to familiarise myself with the contents. Later Toni Perms were done by my Aunt Martha who had set up a little home business at half a crown a time and you bring your own perm kit only she didn’t charge family. Aunt Martha did not provide magazines.

In those days Northfleet High Street was always a busy place with most of the businesses open until six o`clock – including Spooners the Florists, Rowes the Optician, Hinkley’s Shoes and Fred Waters Gentlemen’s Outfitters from London. Wherever possible, family members were employed by each enterprise with sons and daughters, nephews and nieces stepping behind counters after school and on Saturday mornings. Rayners Hardware, for instance eventually provided employment for the whole family, the three sons Ken, Arnold and Eric and their sister Gwennie and the occasional cousin as well.

Walking home would often be cold, the temperature having dropped at least six or seven degrees since we set out but as it darkened each building we passed took on a warm and welcoming look as lights were switched on and all the pubs began to open – The Edinburgh Castle, The Coopers’Arms, The Railway Tavern and The Marquis of Granby. Pete’s Café on The Hill looked especially cheerful because as we approached it I knew we had conquered most of the journey. I longed to go inside but we never did, even when we had one of the Aunts or Old Nan with us because it was a place where only men gathered, always with vans and lorries parked outside and Pete himself inside in a fair isle pullover making the endless cups of tea and cutting the sandwiches.

Understandably I would be quite worn out by the time we reached York Road, feet aching more than they should because often I was walking in shoes that didn’t quite fit. But whatever the adverse aspects of those long ago once weekly shopping trips they were full of incident, however trifling that would be totally absent for those retracing our steps in this totally modern and far more impersonal age.

Sunday, 16 April 2017

St Botolph's School & The Difficult Business of Friendships

Some people seem to be in the happy position of going through life making friends extremely easily and rising to the top in the popularity stakes of each group they become involved in. I’m definitely not one of them. I have had few really close friends over the years and fewer still when I was a child. Molly from No 31 York Road was something of an exception in that she remained my friend over a number of years and did not particularly criticise me or demand very much of me; perhaps she simply did not like me as much as I liked her but possibly a further clue lies in the fact that I never selected her as a suitable victim for my most manipulative schemes. My mother always maintained that my unpopularity lay in the fact that I was a very Quarrelsome Child. She spoke with a fair degree of accuracy although Quarrelsome was not a word I would have immediately chosen. However my general behaviour dictated that It was not completely unsurprising that I found it difficult to make and maintain close relationships as a child. Even at the time I knew there was a problem and half realised why but seemed unable to make the necessary changes for the better. I told myself that I didn’t really care – but of course I did.

It began whilst I was still a pre-schooler when Evalena the granddaughter of The Bassants Next Door would have become my friend very willingly had I only treated her a little better. But treating her well seemed unmanageable and whilst on the surface I appeared to be her friend, behind the scenes and out of the way of adult eyes I made her life as miserable as any four year old possibly could. I plagued her with taunts regarding her weight, jeered at the stories she told me about her mother swallowing open safety pins on a regular basis (that miraculously closed when they encountered mysteriously placed bones whilst navigating her digestive tract) and perhaps more spitefully, sent her on treasure hunts that forced her to purloin other people’s possessions. Even this thinly disguised theft might not have been so bad had Evalena been allowed to keep at least some of the plunder for herself but generally I required her to hand it over. One day she found a full sized cricket bat that had clearly been mistakenly left on The Old Green and she rushed with great excitement to tell me about it. We should play cricket together she told me, still glowing with the exhilaration of the find. Not wanting to admit that I had not a clue as to how cricket was played, however, I decided to spoil things for her by claiming loudly to her grandparents that in fact the bat had been found by me and Evalena had stolen it from me and I wanted it back. The grandparents looked doubtful but within minutes I was sobbing convincingly great victim sobs and so it was handed over. I’ve often wondered why I felt the need to do that as had no inclination to play sport and the bat was shoved under my bed and destined never to be used again.

I saved my most socially hostile schemes for my years at St Botolph’s School so that other, more amiable classmates, once they got the measure of me generally did their best not to get too close and in any activity where we had to Choose A Partner, I was invariably left unpartnered and for ever destined to work alongside whoever happened to be the other class misfit at the time. In Miss Biggs’class at the age of eight I found myself sitting next to another York Road resident, Peter Jackson, a fairly inoffensive boy as boys go who made it clear he would have much rather been placed beside another boy – any boy. For several weeks I made his life miserable by regularly writing the rudest words I knew in his exercise books in capital letters. By today’s standards the words were reasonably mundane and I remember SHIT, BUM, TITS and BUGGER but nothing more indecent than that. However Peter was outraged and when he importantly strode to the front of the room, exercise book in hand, to advise Miss Biggs of this ignominy I practised looking as guileless as possible and with a confused little shrug told her that I didn’t know why Peter said such things about me and I only wished he would stop writing rude words. I even contemplated asking her what TITS actually meant before deciding against the idea. She always believed me and invariably Peter would be told he had to stay in at playtime as a punishment – or given a hundred lines to remind himself that writing rude words was totally unacceptable. I finally stopped torturing him in this way when he was one day sent to Mr Cooke the new headmaster who caned him. Even I thought that was excessive and I found myself so strangely moved by his tears that I began to cry myself. Miss Biggs advised both of us to stop crying at once and reminded me that Peter had been a very naughty boy indeed – that I was the real victim and I should on no account feel sorry for him!

Back in the late nineteen forties Britain was just beginning to recover from the effects of the war, fathers mostly had regular jobs and even working class children like the majority of St Botolph’s pupils were given regular small amounts of pocket money. Although saving was encouraged by most adults the recipients of the money were much more keen to spend it on such delicacies as liquorice wood, sherbet dabs and locust beans from the newsagent and sweet shop next to Penney Son & Parkers on The Hill. To say I was envious of the recipients of these weekly sums is an understatement and I discussed it at some length with Molly who was another non receiver. Finally I hit upon the idea of collecting from what I saw as the more affluent homes in Springhead Road for a non-existent charity which I called the NSSSC (National Society for the Salvation of School Children). Molly declined to join me in this venture but eventually I persuaded a nicely behaved girl called Betty Haddon from Hartfield Place who said she was keen but only if the eventual collection really and truly benefited school children. I told her we were going to buy sherbet dabs and I would personally post them to children in Africa who needed saving. The scheme was not as successful as I had hoped and we were asked rather a lot of penetrating questions about how long we had been Registered but eventually we collected two shillings and nine pence which bought quite a number of sherbet dabs I seem to remember. I generously tried to give Betty one to take home with her but she said she didn’t want it and because I had never been totally wedded to the idea of posting such delightful goodies to Africa in the first place, I consumed the remainder myself over the next day or two. Sadly, when I approached Betty for a second round of collecting she firmly refused and at playtime went back to playing Skipping with Barbara Scutts and Rita Jenkins. Barbara said they had enough for their game and I was not allowed to join them. Feeling very wounded I told Barbara she had stinky knickers whereupon she said that my mother dressed me funny and I looked like a scarecrow. Because that might possibly be true given my mother’s poor dressmaking skills I ran away at that point and seethed in the Girls’Toilets planning payback. Walking home from school Molly said she had never thought Collecting was a very good idea in the first place.

A year or so later I briefly became friendly with Helen Gunner the local vicar’s daughter. I was in fact quite gratified to have been able to coerce her into friendship because she had an attractively posh voice and at that stage I was still trying to perfect my BBC accent and it was clear she was in a position to help being very nearly Posh herself. It was also clear that though they tried to push the rather un-Christian impression aside, her parents considered me to be a totally unsuitable friend for their daughter. Their gut feeling hardened when I encouraged her to play Noughts & Crosses for money and she ended up owing me nearly seven shillings. We had started off with very minor halfpenny stakes but after a while, to increase the excitement of the game I suggested we progress to Double Or Nothing and by that time I think I had also somehow or other rigged the outcome. The Reverend Gunner took us into his rather impressively book-lined study and gave us a gentle lecture on the evils of gambling during which I began to cry and told him that part of me knew it wasn’t right but I was saving up to buy my mother a brooch for her birthday. Helen began to cry as well at that stage and pointed out in a more than slightly moralistic and uptight manner that I had, after all, won the money fairly and squarely and it wasn’t really my fault that gambling was so unacceptable. She even ventured with some hesitation that it was possible no-one had ever explained that properly to me before. Her father began to falter and I saw him wavering, wanting to support his daughter’s sense of what was Fair, Moral, Just – more than a little bit proud of her. In fact exactly like a Father in a Story Book! I thought it must be reassuring to have parents like him although I could see the downside also – just imagine being constantly reminded about the rights and wrongs of your behaviour? At least bottom of the heap families like mine rarely went in for lectures on moral behaviour and most reprimands and punishment simply revolved around drawing attention to yourself by annoying an adult when it wasn’t strictly necessary to do so. Whilst I was meditating upon these differences between families, to my amazement Reverend Gunner handed over the seven shillings and said there would be no further debate on the matter. I did notice, however, that the following Monday at school Helen avoided me and had soon found a new Best Friend – Elizabeth. Feeling more than a little irked I asked her why and she justified the shift by telling me that Elizabeth went to the same tap dancing class as she did. How I envied those fortunate few who were allowed to attend dance classes and set off importantly each Wednesday after school clutching their tap shoes in shoe bags made by loving mothers.

By the time I was ten I had become more pragmatic about the difficult business of attracting friends. It was just possible I was a Late Developer as far as friends were concerned like my cousin Desmond who had caused a great deal of family gossip because he didn’t say a single word until he was three. Even Old Nan agreed that he was finally as Right As Rain and had simply been a Late Developer. Friendship might be something I would eventually Grow Into.

Thursday, 13 April 2017

Withstanding Ruinous Weather Events

I have to say that I, along with many others I know, am heartily sick of all the hysterical hype regarding Weather Events. For days we were warned that a Very Nasty Episode was heading our way in the form of Cyclone Cook. Maybe the name should have told us something – Cook? Not an altogether seemly name for a cylone is it? As parts of the country were still mopping up from the tail end of Cyclone Debbie and the greater part of the town of Edgecumbe was still under water this wasn’t terribly good news. The demeanour of Dan the TV weather man grew more animated as the days passed because THIS was going to be a once in a generation affair, the likes of which most of us had never seen and would be most unlikely to see again. Radio talk shows repeatedly referred to The Waihine Disaster of 1968 when an inter-island ferry went down within sight of the Wellington foreshore with the loss of many lives. THIS was going to be at least as bad, if not worse was the dark warning disseminated by the MetService and we were all advised to take it very seriously indeed. The Ministry of Education therefore advised a large number of schools and early learning centres to close. MetService warned that some areas could expect 250mm of rain in 48 hours and gusts of 150km/hour or more together with large waves in excess of five metres and storm surges. In Auckland the Harbour Bridge was likely to be closed, all ferries cancelled and the dangerous looking new fangled double decker buses would not operate. On Wednesday one meteorologist said that in her opinion the public was not taking the approaching storm seriously enough. The advice was now that Easter trips should be cancelled and we should all stay home unless it was absolutely necessary that we ventured out.

So you can see why Jennifer and I felt quite heroic in our decision to still maintain our second Thursday of the month coffee meeting downtown so close to that dangerous foreshore where we might be caught out by a tidal surge at any moment. But then we are both British and women like us are not easily intimidated by trivia such as cyclones. You could say there is more than a little of the Dunkirk Spirit in us. So, not to put too fine a point on it we met as usual outside the Old Post Office, now the New(ish) Station, carrying mini umbrellas as a precautionary measure and feeling like Warrior Queens – and that’s probably because we both spent our formative years in the general catchment area of the Iceni and learned a great deal about Boadicea at primary school.

As we nervously sipped cinnamon topped cappuccinos Jennifer did concede that she might give the cathedral choir a miss that evening and I agreed that she was wise not to tempt fate by venturing out twice in one day. Our coffee date was shorter than usual on account of fate tempting and possible ferry cancellation at a moment’s notice. I wisely decided not to walk back to Parnell via the waterfront, my usual preferred route, but took the Quay Street-Strand route instead past Scene One where Patrick and Alena live safely away from storm surges on the fifth floor. I stopped briefly at the supermarket on the way, fully intending to buy bread and olives but the place was so full of panic stricken customers feverishly stocking up on bottled water and radio batteries, I left immediately and was within another twelve minutes safely home again. The Husband was relieved to see me safely back and said that he had just heard that the University had closed early.

And so we waited – and waited – and waited some more and in the end Cyclone Cook gave Auckland a Big Miss. We experienced a moderate shower or two, no wind at all and this morning the sun shines as brightly as ever! Over breakfast coffee I complained bitterly about the forecasters. The Husband listened and simply observed that they never get it right when they predict a week of sunshine and high temperatures either. He’s right you know!

Saturday, 8 April 2017

Family Facts & Fantasies


When I recently posed the question on social media as to the wisdom of writing about Predators from the Past, family members whose behaviour towards unprotected young girls should have been curbed, the reactions were immediate, diverse, thought provoking. Many comments came privately, some via email as have a number of communications on family matters over the past year. Overall the feeling was that it is better by far to stay silent. Do not waken sleeping dogs. Predominantly Roman Catholic Families still seem to reflect the attitudes of their Church and prefer to continue to offer robust protection where certain matters of offending are concerned. And though not entirely surprising, in this day and age that is more than a little disappointing. But is it in the great scheme of things any more disheartening than the veil of secrecy that is traditionally drawn over a whole raft of other, infinitely less contentious Family Matters many would prefer to dismiss permanently into the nether regions of the Undiscussable?

It would be reassuring to be able to say that such attitudes are behind the times, outdated, even archaic and in these more enlightened times we of the twenty first century, so utterly up to date in outlook find them laughingly old fashioned. Except so many of us don’t. My grandmother and aunts were highly shamed by the presence of Queenie the Hermaphrodite in their ranks. She was only to be spoken of in whispers. Years later Old Nan would reluctantly admit that she had been `One of Them There Aphrodites’, causing rapid reference to the Myths of Ancient Greece followed by even more confusion. Similarly in the late nineteen forties my mother was deeply mortified to concede that my father was a serial adulterer and could only bring herself to openly acknowledge the fact when he had been dead for over thirty years. In her distress she sadly always overlooked his good points. He had also been a charismatic individual with a wide range of interests and many loyal friends. He read widely, learned Arias from Italian Opera simply for fun and wrote poetry, somewhat unusual interests for a working class man and maybe worthy of discussion. But he was as far as she was concerned simply designated a sexual philanderer and as she was never prepared to openly recognise the infidelity, his memory together with all that was worthy about him was forever consigned to a dark corner and he was only rarely spoken of.

Years later it was more understandable that she had an eagerness for my brother’s brief and unsuccessful career in crime in his teens to be overlooked. He was never going to pose a threat to the Krays or the Richardsons and in the execution of his lawbreaking left behind enough clues to give even Hercule Poirot a headache but our mother’s enthusiasm for denying that any of the incidents actually took place was disquieting. So unwavering was her determination to utterly ignore his offending I was barely allowed to know of it myself and was never able to ascertain if anyone else in the immediate family was actually aware of it because an iron curtain of silence descended that made discussion impossible. This was unfortunate because even at the time I was aware that the unhappy episodes had come about primarily because he was missing a father’s influence and it might have helped if it could have been openly spoken of. This was never to be the case, however, and I imagine that should I broach the subject even today I would be soundly castigated by a number of first and second cousins who feel they knew him well yet knew him not at all.

My father’s family was no better at accepting calamitous situations and my paternal grandmother’s forty year incarceration within a mental hospital for drunkenness and picking neighbourhood fights was a luckless tale that worsened with embroidery. Simply because the true facts of her confinement were never spoken of we grandchildren came to the conclusion that she was a murderess and told each other stories of the bodies that were later found under the house in Chatham. This eventually became playground gossip then street gossip that filtered back to the astonished adults so keen on protecting her reputation from slanderous comment in the first place.

When my first son was born in the late nineteen sixties my mother was appalled by my unmarried status and for the benefit of friends and neighbours married me off to an entirely imaginary architect. I was not able to work out whether my closest relatives were also privy to this tale because the familial rules surrounding concealment of truth dictated that the topic could never be raised. However, a few years later when I entered an Actual Marriage with a New Zealand doctor she was greatly discomfited and forced to kill of the architect and remarry me as swiftly as possible. The speed of the nuptials was purely because Medicine rated more highly than Architecture in the family scale of general achievement. To this day the demise of Husband Number One is never mentioned.

Matters concerning sexual attraction and long term attachments between men and women were customarily even more taboo and their discussion was generally prohibited at all times. Leaving a long term partner was so horrifying it was largely ignored for as long as possible and finally debated only tentatively and in a kid glove atmosphere. Surprisingly, even in the more enlightened nineteen eighties family consternation was rife when my brother decided to walk away from his first marriage. Bernard had been a husband and father at the tender age of eighteen and it seemed not altogether surprising that after twenty years he saw fit to move on from his first wife to his second. What might have been a moderately standard transition was sadly greatly complicated by the fact that two couples who had been friends since schooldays and who had acted as Best Men and Maids of Honour at each other’s weddings, now kept things simple by switching partners thus making their lives the stuff of BBC comedies. This fact so disturbed our nearest and dearest that the many Aunts simply decided that it wasn’t happening. It was just a vicious and unfounded rumour that could not possibly be spoken of even though the truth was clearly visible to most of those around us and the details of the partner switch so sensational and scandalous that it caused months of gossip in North Kent. It is easy to comprehend the reluctance to acknowledge the rapidly unfolding drama but unhappily such attitudes only aid and abet the layers of secrets and lies that for no very good reason thrive and flourish within families where Truth has little value. Aghast and amused bystanders are destined to be for ever confused by the end result of certain human behaviours and eventually are given to understand that just a few family members know the Whole Truth of what the reprobates are up to whilst others are aware of partial truths and a further much less informed group know little or nothing at all because for some reason they need to be Protected. And whilst Protecting the Young is completely logical, there is surely a case for querying why protection needs to continue for decades. Sadly, such mind sets become entrenched even though they serve merely to foster misgivings because in an environment of distrust it is challenging for any one of us to make sensible decisions as to what can be discussed and with whom. Possibly that was not entirely uncommon thirty years ago and we might be advised to simply analyse it alongside the underlying social bigotry that also existed at the time. But surely things have changed by now?

Yet have they? As far as relationship break ups are concerned, these carry with them such a raft of damaged emotions it is easy to see how it simply becomes easier not to examine a subject that is agonisingly painful. It’s a fact that in human affiliations one person will always be destined to suffer the greater anguish. The humiliation of being seen as no longer valued when a long term partner signals their intention to move on cannot be truly understood by those in more secure relationships. It therefore becomes ever more logical that Mythology is fostered whilst Truth withers and with time those who seek to question the Mythology are rapidly labelled Liars of the First Order.

So what of those other dark perpetrators of misery we started with? The predators from times past who heaped their inappropriate behaviours onto the young and unprotected? Does there ever come a time when their transgressions can be exposed and the torment they inflicted be examined? Or does it do no good to Bring It All Up? Should we instead begin to accept the new family parameters of Folklore rather than face what an unfortunate few once knew to be Facts? With the passage of the years it becomes ever more feasible that the transgressions of the wrongdoers are protected alongside more run of the mill misdeeds. Does it do any good to heap misery upon their descendants? The defence of Wrongdoing begins tentatively at first simply with the passing of time. Then time creeps up alongside accuracy soundlessly, surreptitiously and irrevocably stealing certainty. Its relentless passage can be traced in the shifting boundaries of honour and integrity. Time will always be the ultimate Victor.