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Sunday, 17 December 2017

Approaching Christmas Rationally

I’ve never been able to Do Christmas in a sensible manner and my brother used to maintain that it was because of our father electing to die so very inconveniently close to the festive season at the end of 1951. Following his own inconvenient death in April 2016 I no longer have a listening ear with which to discuss such matters. My own children, growing up in Auckland, New Zealand always felt they were trapped in a Dickensian novel at this time of year as I trawled suburbs, and more latterly the internet, for those providing geese for Yuletide eating. Let me tell you it isn’t easy to buy a goose in this part of the world but then again not completely impossible. What the kids really wanted to do, of course, was have barbecue on the beach like other people – normal people.

Now they have successfully escaped my enforced December traditions they are slightly less critical and Seamus, in Taiwan has even admitted to making his own Christmas Pudding from time to time which is courageous since the Taiwanese do not seem naturally drawn to Christmas Pudding. Sinead, in London definitely opts for a heavily decorated tree every year and is happy to admit it. Patrick still living close by in Auckland is perhaps the most traditional of the trio enjoying all the trimmings and also liking to incorporate as many German traditions as possible simply because his father was German.

For me, like all children growing up immediately after World War Two, Christmas was certainly not a time for being showered with expensive toys and more a time for church-going, early evening carol singing under lamp posts and partaking in seasonal treats such as mince pies, tangerines and candied pineapple. By mid November at St Botolph’s school we turned with great determination to the celebration of Christmas, greatly anticipating the excitement of this most important Christian festival of the year.

I loved going into the adjacent church each afternoon in order to practice the order of carols chosen for the end of term service. We sang the same pieces each year - `Once In Royal David’s City’, `The First Noel’, `It Came Upon The Midnight Clear,’ `Hark The Herald Angels Sing’, `Oh Come All Ye Faithful’, `While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks By Night’ and `Oh Little Town Of Bethlehem’ and there were times when one or more of the traditional carols were also sung at the end of year concert also. The Christmas concert I remember best is the one where Betty Haddon sang `Alice Blue Gown’ and Pearl Banfield and I headed a group dressed as Crinoline Ladies in crepe paper costumes to dance a waltz. Both my parents were there which made me enormously proud even though my brother got bored and began to cry.

Then quite suddenly school was finished and it was home to new Council Houses with fires in `tiled surrounds’ for the luckiest among us and back to the tiny workmen’s cottages where the heating was pre-Victorian for the rest of us. Strangely we did not seem to notice how poor we were at Christmas, theoretically the time when it should have been most obvious, so powerful was the excitement of the impending celebration. On Christmas Eve the Salvation Army Band toured the streets for the final time and we donned coats and scarves and stood under the lamp on the corner of Springhead Road to listen before being ushered indoors once more for mince pies with cocoa for the children and a tot of cherry brandy for the grown-ups. Later my father would take me to Midnight Mass at the Roman Catholic Church where I happily shunted off my term-time St. Botolph’s Anglicanism and once again became a devout Catholic child both fascinated by the high drama of the Mass but bored at the same time because it went on far too long. He in his overcoat, demob suit and white silk scarf intent upon appraising any woman under thirty attending alone, was always in a good mood whilst maintaining an air of studied piety. At this time of year both the Parish Priest, Father O`Connor and a clutch of black-clad nuns made a fuss of me and told me I was a good child, hoping to lure me back to the school in Springhead Road and on one occasion I was given Rosary Beads, ebony and silver. At the end of the mass there was generally a little Yuletide conversation between the attending parishioners during which my father was able to chat with the piano teacher from the top of Springhead Road and both the Murphy sisters who ran the Brownie pack and laugh too loudly at their jokes.

Of course all children woke at dawn next day feverishly excited at the thought of what Father Christmas just might have brought with him and we were never let down because he always did bring something. Usually I became the proud owner of a pile of second hand books. Breakfast on Christmas Day always began with mugs of sweet tea, laced with whiskey even for the children though I have absolutely no idea how and when this particular tradition began and it was certainly not present in all local families but I do know that each of my own children still follow it.

Christmas Dinner was served fashionably late, certainly not before two in the afternoon and was always a stuffed and roasted chicken, mashed and roast potatoes, sprouts and a salty brown gravy followed by home-made Christmas Pudding and a white cornflour sauce heavily sweetened. My parents drank beer with this repast and my brother and I were deliriously excited to be given lemonade, exactly as if we were in the children’s room at a local pub. We stayed up late and listened to the radio and on Boxing Day we went visiting either to Crayford to my mother’s family or to Waterdales to my father’s, either way it was something I looked forward to because among my many cousins there was sure to be one who had been given a second hand bike or even a passed on china doll as Connie-on-my-father’s-side was one eventful year.

Although my relationship with my father was still fraught with difficulties, these were largely happy festive seasons during which we sensibly drew a truce. Now of course I realise how difficult I must have made his life upon his return to his family after the war when I so very much wished he would return to the Eighth Army and that The War would simply resume. I found the war years strangely reassuring and rarely felt in any danger. Life certainly changed a great deal when he returned in 1946 and was to take an even more dramatic turn following his sudden death on 12th December 1951. Our future Christmases were to be sombre affairs and treats were few. I was no longer required to go to Midnight Mass and found I missed the tradition and would sometimes insist on going alone.

I think I must have been a particularly contrary child. I certainly grew into being a particularly contrary adult and as I said previously I have never been able to approach Christmastime in a rational manner in my frantic desire to become knee deep in conventions and traditions. On the other hand maybe I’m slowly learning – I haven’t even attempted to track down a goose this year! So far anyway.....

Saturday, 25 November 2017

Out of Northfleet Long Ago

My three part memoir about Northfleet in the 1940s and 1950s is now, at long last and not before time, available from Amazon as paperback print versions. Most of us still prefer to read an actual book rather than those designed for kindles. The reminiscences below are revisited for newcomers.

Growing up in North Kent in the immediate post war years, Northfleet seemed to be a thriving town rather than a suburb of Gravesend as it appears now. My mother and I made regular trips to shop in the High Street and to visit Great Aunt Martha in Hamerton Road and a distant cousin called Edie in Stonebridge Hill not to mention yet another who lived in Huggens College and whose name I have long forgotten. Walking the area today ít’s hard to believe that this quiet place where footsteps now actually echo was once a veritable hive of industry. The shops on each side of the High Street then offered all that a local resident could possibly desire and included a grocer, greengrocer, baker, butcher, newsagent, hardware merchant, sweetshop & tobacconist and florist not to mention a post office, dentist, optician, photographer and even a cinema. I remember standing impatiently in a queue at Lincolns the chemists where the only amusement was staring at the little wooden drawers behind the counter with strange names on them which were probably Latin. We seemed to go to Rayner’s on a regular basis for things like screws, nails and sometimes huge bars of yellow soap and broom handles. The fish and chip shop was a highly exciting place because sometimes on Fridays my mother would stop by for fish and chips with vinegar. My favourite High Street shop though was Frosts, full of things like radios, bikes and even toys and I loved it when my mother decided to browse there for ten minutes or so.

One morning towards the end of the war we visited the photographer whose name is long forgotten, to have a photograph taken together to send to my father serving in North Africa. When he at last returned he visited Bareham’s the Barbers on a regular basis for a short back and sides. There were also corner shops tucked away in the side streets and of course a number of pubs including The Edinburgh Castle and the Dorset Arms. Not a supermarket in sight of course and indeed I don’t think we had heard of them although we knew from our weekly cinema visits that Americans were likely to shop in a completely different way to ourselves. At home most of us had a radio for entertainment and information but as yet no television. Without a doubt we all loved the radio and there were plenty of programmes to amuse us such as Paul Temple and Dick Barton, both serials of the Special Agent variety. We also listened to the Billy Cotton Band Show and ITMA starring Tommy Handley. His cleaning lady, Mrs. Mopp seemed to greatly amuse the studio audience simply by asking week after week, `Can I do you now Sir? I was confused by the ongoing merriment at the time. If we felt we needed to be further entertained we went out into the community, visiting the Wardona Picture House or the Astoria Dance Hall. Most local men, and some women said by my mother to be `fast’ also visited the various pubic houses. After the war I recall my father going to the Factory Club opposite the cinema and from time to time my mother and I went with him and watched what she called Variety Shows. These were organised by the local scouts I believe and at least once a year there was an extra special event, The Gang Show produced by Ralph Reader. To me the Factory Club was a fascinating place and my first introduction to live theatre. Years later when passing the building my poor mother shuddered and muttered and said the place had been the ruin of my father and I imagined that it had been in some way connected with the fights and tears that later took place between them involving mysterious fast women who were no better than they ought to have been. It would be true to say that for all his good points my father had a weakness for women. He was also a football fan and sometimes on Saturday afternoons I most unwillingly accompanied him to matches at the ground at the bottom of Stonebridge Hill. I was much keener on joining the group of local children to fight over the swings and slide in Ebbsfleet Park.

People did not travel out of the area a great deal and although there was a regular bus service linking us with Gravesend and Dartford, only important citizens like the doctor and those living close to him in London Road, whom we thought to be seriously wealthy, owned vehicles though some shop owners who made deliveries had vans. Many deliveries were still made by horse and cart and boys on bicycles, however. During the years that immediately followed the war we, like many of our neighbours, kept chickens and rabbits in our back garden to supplement our diet. Once the rabbits had been killed their skins were sold to the Rag & Bone man for six pence apiece. I was usually allowed to organise the sales and keep the proceeds just as long as I made as little fuss as possible at the slaughter which I generally found to be more than I could bear. Nobody owned a refrigerator back then, let alone a freezer and so fresh meat was kept in small wooden safes with mesh doors that were fixed high on an outside wall. During the hottest weather we kept milk and butter in a bucket of cold water in the outside lavatory which I admit now seems rather less than hygienic. Very few women went to work but stayed at home attending to home chores and children. Every Monday they rose earlier than usual to do the weekly wash and a fire would be lit under the copper boiler in the kitchen so that sheets, towels and pillow cases could end up as white and bright as possible. First of all the items were rubbed vigorously on a washboard, transferred into the copper, prodded for a while with the copper stick, rinsed in the kitchen sink and finally put through the mangle outside the kitchen door before being pegged onto the line!

Most local families had very little money and so large items like a birthday bicycle or a replacement radio would be financed on Hire Purchase offered by some local shops. The National Health Service did not exist until 1947 and as a rule we were reluctant to consult a doctor unless absolutely necessary. I remember the local doctors were Dr Crawford in Granby Place and Dr Outred in London Road. There was no appointments system and no receptionist and all you needed to do was sit and wait your turn. When I was very small there were no antibiotics so some conditions, today easily treated and minor, were very dangerous and could kill. There were a number of local schools including Lawn Road School, The Board School, St Botolph’s C of E School and St Joseph’s Roman Catholic School. I was initially enrolled at St Botolph’s and thought I was an Anglican but later removed by my father and told I was a Catholic. Although I years on briefly flirted with becoming a nun, on the whole I vastly preferred St Botolph’s. Gradually in those years following the war, we became accustomed to having more goods in the shops to choose from and we increasingly abandoned Northfleet High Street as the main focus of our weekly shopping to venture regularly into Gravesend where there was a Woolworth’s and a Marks & Spencer’s and of course a Saturday market. The great entertainment of the market was Sid Strong who sold his wares from the back of a lorry and always attracted a huge audience. It seems now that community life in those days moved at a slower pace and involved us all in a way that now seems completely absent. We no longer know anything about the characters behind the household items we buy and the services we use. Perhaps not a huge step forward in human progress.

More memories are within the pages of CHALK PITS & CHERRY STONES and EIGHT TEN TO CHARING CROSS. Volume 3, IN DISGRACE WITH FORTUNE concerns, as my mother would undoubtedly have said, A Fast Life and is perhaps not for the faint-hearted.

Wednesday, 8 November 2017

MISCONDUCT IN DAYS OF YORE

An astonishing number of women are now coming forward and accusing powerful males of sexually molesting them in days of yore, well not exactly when knights roamed the countryside of course but in the days of early cell phones and messages sent via fax machine and even before that. It’s alarming just how many men were doing exactly what they could get away with – comforting too because it means that it definitely wasn’t only happening in my little corner of West London and North West Kent. Jimmy Savile’s name springs immediately to mind in this context of course, along with many others. Harvey Weinstein certainly doesn’t stand alone. I feel ever so slightly cautious, however, about removing all plaudits concerning the work of these men. Whatever we might think about Savile, and most of us don’t think much of him these days, he did raise one hell of a lot of money for charity and worked tirelessly at this over decades. Is Kevin Spacey overnight to be considered a grossly inferior actor because now we understand more about the dark side of his nature than we did a month ago? And are we supposed to tell ourselves that Roman Polanski is actually a mediocre film maker because there are too many accusations of sexual misconduct attached to his name? And to go back in time a little further should we chuck Chaucer into the darkest corners of obscurity because he celebrated the rape of a minor in The Reeve’s Tale? It’s tempting of course because he sounds like a Patriarchal Prat but on the other hand…..

Jokes about the casting couch have always abounded and mostly evidence truth. Household names were subjected to the practice as long ago as the 1930s. That in no way means it should have ever been condoned but it seems to me that a proportion of the quite grown up women subjected to it should have understood the implications a little more clearly than they obviously did. Why would anyone go to a powerful man’s hotel room unless they were hopeful that he might be able to help promote a career? Alternatively was his sexual magnetism so great that self control went out of the window? And whilst on the subject it should be stated that a lot of the time Harvey W seems to have been extremely pro-active and helpful with career building.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s not my intention to make excuses for these predators – heaven knows I stumbled across enough of them myself in the past. You’ve only got to read CHALK PITS & CHERRY STONES or 8.10 TO CHARING CROSS to realise that. And when my colleagues in and around Denmark Street were encouraging me (age 16 or 17) to inspect parts of their anatomy I had little prospect of a film part out of the deal. There was an imbalance of power certainly and they should have known better. They did it because they could get away with it, because it was a different time with different standards and different acceptable norms. And the other reason they did it was because I failed to stop them.

Thursday, 12 October 2017

Assault On a Warrior Queen On The Central Line


Casual molestation of young women has been so embedded in the expectation of men with a modicum of power and influence that it hardly deserves comment. Harvey Weinstein could currently be described as unlucky rather than unusual. I very nearly feel a smidgen of compassion for him, after all it’s not as if he deviates that much from what was certainly the norm a few decades ago. Furthermore I am finding it challenging to believe those of the breathlessly shocked bystanders in the film industry, wide-mouthed and wide-eyed who now claim not to have suspected for a moment his ongoing unseemly conduct! Where have they been since they reached the age of consent?
It’s always possible that Australasia has generally speaking been been free from the predatory males under discussion in which case local readers might consider me slightly deranged. However, women of my age hailing from the UK, like our Californian Sisters will be all too familiar with the syndrome. Commuters on rush hour trains will undoubtedly recall the horrors of travel in and around London where daily investigation of the female anatomy was rampant enough to be termed de rigueur. For instance on the 8.10 from Gravesend to Charing Cross several young men in city suits seemingly intent upon reading The Times had all but perfected the unpleasant art of frottage and had regularly exposed me to it before my seventeenth birthday.
Before totally modern women completely condemn we wimpish females of the nineteen fifties and sixties, I must explain that most of us did not actually welcome the attention. In fact the more courageous among us gave our assailants frosty stares from time to time and over cups of tea on station concourses we even furtively discussed the incidents among ourselves in low voices and with cautious glances left and right. We sometimes wondered if we were Asking For It.
Later, when objection to sexual harassment had become more acceptable and was even brazenly and openly debated on daytime TV shows, we learned that it had little to do with the mini-skirts we were wearing and more to do with the unbridled sense of entitlement inherent in the males themselves. Some of us vowed we would Do Something About It. Having been the recipient of unwanted sexual attention of one kind or another from the age of twelve you can possibly understand that I was a little more cautious than my traveling companions and I thought I would wait to see how the tactic panned out. By the time I was thirty, however, and becoming involved once more in regular London commuter travel I was Ready For Action. The next unfortunate male who perpetrated an assault upon me would be confronted with a Modern Day Emmeline Pankhurst.
He was a fortyish, a well-dressed fellow in polished shoes and a jaunty yellow tie. He sat down beside me on the Central line train even though it was a half empty carriage and whilst we traveled from Holland Park to Lancaster Gate he blatantly tried to investigate what might lie beneath my knee length blue serge skirt. But on this occasion I was Prepared. Was I not descended from strong Kentish Iceni Women? like Boudicca unleashing her fury upon the Roman Invaders, I turned on him in the humming silence of the Queensway Station thirty second stop boldly, spear in hand. Visualising my long red hair flowing about my queenly shoulders I took a deep breath and demanded in ringing tones if he would Mind Not Making a Complete Nuisance of Himself.
He half rose from his seat unhurriedly, a knowing smile on his face and replied in the equally loud and clear timbre of one definitely born within the sound of Bow Bells with: I’m sorry luv but I fort you was Easy – you looked Easy! Then he walked away.

Tuesday, 10 October 2017

Underestimating Women Scorned

My friend from Northern Ireland, Judith, was regaling me once again with the frightening details of her brutal reaction to the infidelity of the man she had been married to for thirty years, the ordinary run-of-the-mill husband in his sixties who did not realise that he all but took his life in his hands when he betrayed her two years previously. We were Skyping because Judith likes to Skype. It was the lying about it that hurt the most she finally decided when the dust had settled somewhat on the shattered remains of their union, the lies followed closely by the unspeakable insult of him actually introducing the girl to various among their friends and family. The fact that they were all too gutless to mention it to her. She said for the third time that the behaviour of everyone involved had been totally unforgivable.
To be completely fair to Judith she had not launched into the story of his treachery completely out of the blue. It was me who half brought up the topic by telling her how much I was enjoying watching the second season of Dr Foster which was foolish of course because even whilst I watched the heroine’s demise unfold in series one, it occurred to me how closely the tale mirrored that of Judith and Bruce. Judith was saying that of course there was no question of a baby in his case even if the Taiwanese girl wanted one because whether she knew it or not, Bruce had been what she now called Sterilised years before. She spat the words out then muttered that she wished he’d been fully Castrated to completely stop his little games.
Her voice unexpectedly softening she added that she was quite certain that he had never been a man who strayed previously, for one thing there was little opportunity because they were hardly ever parted night or day for years because of working together to make that business the success it turned out to be. She still blamed herself for buying him the ticket to Wembley Stadium that cost an arm and a leg. It was the boys’ night out that followed that really did for Bruce. And what’s more she knew that there were still a number of his friends and their wives who knew more than they were prepared to admit. She could only sympathize with Dr Foster. Judith knew only too well how it felt to harbour so much hurt and anger. Nevertheless it was all in the past now. She’d put it all behind her. That’s not to say she would ever be able to forgive him of course. It was not in her nature to do so but on the other hand there were women out there who would cheerfully slaughter an errant husband.
There was a silence and the screen elongated our faces as if we were in a Hall of Mirrors. Then she added that she might have even considered a homicide herself had she for one moment felt she would get away with it, after all he’d had heart trouble on and off for years and taking Viagra was not at all good for him. I laughed nervously. She asked me sharply if I thought she was joking. I laughed again.

Friday, 29 September 2017

Falling Back On Pitmans


Although Wombwell Hall provided a very good general education in the mid 1950s it had not instilled much patience or persistence in me which was regrettable because Miss Hart always maintained that what We Girls needed more than anything else was what she called, variously, Staying Power and Stickability. She lamented those of us who dropped out of the Pitmans course expressing a foolish desire to simply be copy typists and reminded us that such attitudes would never help us Rise ThroughThe Ranks. At the time I felt smug because I was mastering Pitmans without too much effort even though I was seriously toying with becoming a Sister of Mercy rather than a secretary. Miss Hart said she understood completely but she couldn’t emphasise enough that we should all Stick At mastering the mysteries of office work because then, whatever happened, we could always Fall Back On It. Because I found it easy, I happily Stuck At It. Nevertheless a year or so later that schoolgirl Stickability was not helping me Rise ThroughThe Ranks at Messrs. Francis, Day & Hunter.

I had been working for exactly ten months when I decided that the job was not providing the stimulus it had originally seemed to offer. Celebrities visiting the Copyright Department remained thin on the ground and the exotic duo of shorthand typists in the Professional Department did not seem to be in any hurry to move on and vacate their glamorous positions to me. Nor was I being offered a Rise in pay and remained on what I soon came to view as a rather ungenerous five pounds per week. This dearth of Rises helped me to conclude that I should move on.

Back in those days office jobs were very easy into find and so making a change did not pose any problem and in any case I had overheard in Julie’s, the café at the end of Denmark Street, that Lawrence Wright, a rival publisher, was in need of secretarial help in his much acclaimed Light Music Department. I popped in there during my next lunch break and applied for the position. They hired me on the spot and to my great surprise were willing to pay me six pounds a week, pleasingly at once aware of my undoubted star potential. Miss Hart would be proud of me and as I occasionally saw her out on an evening walk if I got off the train at Northfleet rather than Gravesend, I resolved that at the very next opportunity I would fill her in with all the glorious details of my success. She was bound to be impressed.

I knew very little about Lawrence Wright except that he was spoken of in hushed tones in the environs of Denmark Street because he was also the famous song writer, Horatio Nicholls but then I had never heard of Horatio Nicholls either so his notoriety meant nothing to me. When I told my copyright department colleague, Pat, who I was moving on to work for she said that Horatio Nicholls had written legendary numbers like Among My Souvenirs and what’s more had founded Melody Maker magazine which I immediately put on my reading list. Later I was to learn from the Man Himself whilst serving his first cup of tea of the day that he had been born in Leicester in 1888 the son of a violin teacher so from my point of view he had had a flying start as far as making progress in the Music Business was concerned. He left school at twelve to be apprenticed to a printer but by the time he was eighteen was selling sheet music in the local market, ensuring good sales by singing the songs himself whilst playing an ancient upright piano. He was a young man of determined spirit, definitely a Go Getter, and when London Music Publishers did not show an interest in the songs he wrote, he decided to found his own publishing company!

When I arrived in the Light Music Department in 1957 Mr Wright still came to the office each morning by taxi at eight fifteen am and as I was required to start at eight thirty and my first job of the day was to make him a pot of tea we had many an early morning conversation. By this time, having researched him thoroughly via Westminster Public Library, I was grudgingly in awe of him which seemed to please him. He told me that he was infamous for a number of startling publicity stunts such as hiring a plane from Imperial Airways in 1927 with the Jack Hylton Orchestra on board playing his latest number Me & Jane In A Plane as it circled over Blackpool Tower Ballroom. He was not known as The Grand Old Man of Tin Pan Alley for nothing though there may well have been an element of exaggeration in these sagas retold for the edification of a star struck teenager. I would have told equally extravagant tales about myself given half a chance but unfortunately he always seemed much keener to talk about his life than mine so I had to save them for Delores with whom I shared an office in the illustrious Professional Department.

Delores was nearly sixty and she seemed a very old lady to me at the time. She lived in a top floor flatlet in Muswell Hill and had a cat called Jeremiah. I was now to be Secretary to Mr Eddie Schubert who was also keen to tell me all about himself and I learned that he had fled Vienna in 1938 with his violin and found himself in London via a very circuitous route. He was responsible for overseeing and promoting the company’s `Light Orchestral’ music which included some of the stirring marches of John Philip Sousa of which I became very fond.

The secretarial services of Delores were shared by Mr Ted Raymond and Mr Johnny Wise who were the senior song pluggers. Mr Raymond lived in a picturesque cottage in the village of Meopham, close to Gravesend, and he took a fast train home each evening from Victoria Station. Mr Wise on the other hand was a dedicated Londoner, originally from the East End but now resident in a Maida Vale mansion flat with wife and teenage daughter. On the ground floor of our building was the reception desk where a pretty Welsh girl called Olwen was both telephonist and receptionist and at the rear was the space where Benny and Lenny smoked and swore and sorted sheet music to be sent to various theatres and dance halls around the country. Benny was a tall and handsome eighteen year old with a motor bike and a girlfriend called Shirl and Lenny had just left school, had thick glasses and pimples and got excited and sweaty when he spoke more than a word or two.

With the new job I determined to make an entirely new start and turn over a new leaf and to this end created a novel and exciting fantasy family, venturing into the unfamiliar and thrilling world of stepmothers for the first time. I was now an only child. My father, Joshua, a small town lawyer had inadvisably and against all the advice of his friends, married Jessica an actress after the death of my mother some years previously. I did not get on with Jessica or either of her nineteen year old twin sons, who were called Brent and Stuart in honour of the Tarleton Twins in Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With The Wind, and looked very much as they did in the film. Needless to say I had very recently read Margaret Mitchell’s book described by my mother as The Book Of The Film and over the years I had viewed the film at least three times in the company of various tearful female relatives. Three viewings proved to be rather too many and reduced the tribulations of Scarlet O’Hara to the decidedly tedious. My mythical stepmother had in fact auditioned for the part of Scarlet in the David Selznick production but it went to Vivien Leigh and she never really got over the disappointment. Joshua rather rapidly realised he had made a mistake in marrying this disappointed thespian but had resigned himself to trying to make the marriage work. I was very much in favour of the idea of couples working hard at their partnerships. Early in 1957 we had moved from our thatched cottage in Cobham village, a home much loved by my father to a very new and exclusive apartment overlooking the river in Gravesend, close to Bawley Bay. My stepmother maintained that the apartment was a great improvement on the draughty old cottage. She hated cooking and because help was very hard to find in those days, we were now able to eat out on a regular basis at the steak bar in the Royal Clarendon Hotel which was fortunately close by or even the new Chinese restaurant in the town centre.

Delores shook her head sympathetically upon hearing of the family problems and described my father as a Poor Soul and told me I should do everything in my power to be of emotional support to him. When she asked curiously whether the boys had jobs, referring to them as Those Twins, I took delight in explaining how much Jessica was opposed to the idea of them working and wanted them to have their freedom despite the fact that my father thought it would be good for them to join the work force. She shook her head again and repeated that my father was a Poor Dear Soul. All this was most gratifying and I began to plan a weekend family outing to tell her about, to a smart London restaurant, even Rules perhaps where we could celebrate the twentieth birthday of the twins and where Jessica could look utterly splendid in an ocelot coat. I had only a hazy idea of what an ocelot coat might look like but knew that Jessica would undoubtedly love one. Possibly Joshua could have given her one when they first got married. The outing to Rules might end in disaster with Jessica storming out into rainy Covent Garden and the twins going in search of her. The possibilities were delightfully endless. I might keep this satisfying newly developed family for the remainder of the year. I was beginning to become fond of them.

When I finally bumped into Miss Hart outside Northfleet Station one evening in early October she seemed eager to know how life was going for me. I would have very much enjoyed telling her about my stepmother and the twins and elaborating on situations endured by my father such as the unfortunate evening at Rules but as I couldn’t recall what I might have told her in the past, the idea had to be reluctantly set aside. Instead I quite unexpectedly found myself telling her that I had recently auditioned for the part of a governess in a TV version of Jane Eyre and had that very afternoon been made aware that I had won the role. She was overjoyed for me because Pitmans did not have to be For Ever and she thought I could always Fall Back On It. She was definitely going to watch the play and she would tell everyone at school. I walked away feeling strangely uneasy and for the first time wished fervently for a simple way to stop myself recounting such irrational and easily disproved stories.

Saturday, 16 September 2017

Phone Shy!

From the moment I started work I was filled with enthusiasm for my position as a junior shorthand typist at Messrs. Francis, Day & Hunter of 138 Charing Cross Road, even if it was only in the Copyright Department. To be honest, for those as star-struck as myself, the only Department that might have been more boring was the Packing Department where Bill and Cyril packed sheet music to be sent to Theatres and Music Shops far and wide but the very possibility, faint though it was, that I might catch a glimpse of a celebrity was intoxicating. In the interim I was to type letters for Mr Roy and Mr Paul, advising theatres whether they could use various pieces of music in productions they were planning which in theory should have been interesting but actually wasn’t. I also did the filing which I could never quite get the hang of and therefore I did it in a most haphazard manner as was discovered whenever anyone tried to find documents after I left the Company ten months later. The Head of Department was Mr Blackburn and his secretary was called Pat and she typed more important and interesting letters than I did. Pat told me that she was engaged to someone called Norman who lived in the same street in Pinner and when she Got Married and Started a Family, if my work was acceptable I might well move into her place and actually become Secretary to Mr. Blackburn.

The Copyright Department was almost at the top of the old building, the only people working above us were the Arrangers in the tiny attic rooms, and Flo from Hackney, the lady who made the teas and coffees for us all. To get to my desk each day I had to pass by the terribly exciting Professional Department on the first floor where Stella was receptionist and Olive typed for Mr Bert Corri and Mr Tommy Sands played the piano for singers who dropped in throughout the day to practice various numbers. From time to time Stella and Olive chattered together in the Ladies Room on the ground floor and casually mentioned the Famous and Renowned, names like Frankie Vaughan and The Stargazers, they who apparently popped in and out of the place exchanging confidences with this fortunate duo. Simply to be allowed to listen in on these conversations was totally thrilling and I envied them with all my heart and wondered if they too might be considering leaving to Get Married & Start Families in the near future. However, in the meantime I reminded myself how very fortunate I was to be working for such a notable organization and pitied those squashed up against me on the fast trains who, like my poor school-friend Shirley, worked in Typing Pools for Shipping Companies. I also took care to buy copies of the New Musical Express from time to time which I read in a showy manner just so that fellow commuters might notice and be impressed.

I was in no doubt that I belonged within that heady strata of Fame and Fortune myself and to comfort and support my ego until my Big Break arrived I very soon reverted to the recently abandoned habit of invented families and to this end on my third day in the Copyright Department I changed my name from Jean which was oh so boring - to Toni which was oh so avant garde. When I was asked by Mr Blackburn, Pat presumably being too polite, how it was I came by a name that differed completely from that stated on my brand new employment record card I laughed in what I hoped was a nonchalant manner and said that my real name was Antoinette in honour of my father Antoine who had been a Resistance Fighter in France and died at the end of the war. Since his death I had usually been known by the diminutive Toni. My full baptismal name was Antoinette Jeanne-Marie, shortened to Jean at school by the nuns. Whether or not this unlikely tale was believed I have no idea. Mr. Blackburn looked as if he wished he had not asked in the first place but at once obligingly began to call me Toni. What a thrill! It would obviously not take too long to become a Household Name.

I was half considering awarding Toni a mother called Kate, a retired actress, living in a neo Georgian house overlooking the Thames just outside of Gravesend with her much younger husband called Benedict recently acquired whilst holidaying in Cannes when the Phone Shy problem inconveniently cropped up. It was a pity because I had most of the details concerning the family organized. Kate’s bedroom was to be pleasingly decorated in pink and gold as was her equally impressive en-suite bathroom and it must be realized that this was at a time when en-suite facilities were not every-day routine features. There were huge cupboards along an entire wall to hold her vast wardrobe of cocktail dresses and casual linen slacks. Even Toni had her own room and en- suite though decidedly more modest and not on the river side of the house. I think the younger brothers – twins aged twelve who were at boarding school most of the time, had to share a room and use the bathroom on the floor below. The unfortunate new husband, Benedict, was not being terribly well treated by his step-children and I visualized many a family drama that could be hesitantly discussed at morning tea time so I was naturally reluctant to relinquish this agreeable Gravesend family. But unfortunately it had to be done, and fast, simply because of the tricky dilemma of the telephone. I don’t need to elaborate on the fact that at 28 York Road there had never been any sign of a telephone ever being installed either during our tenure or that of the large Evans family who went before us. In the 1950s we were definitely not the kind of people who used telephones. And as if it was aware of this fact even the nearest phone box was at the very end of Springhead Road near the 496 bus stop.

Pat, kindly explaining the parameters of my job as a junior shorthand typist told me on my second day that Thursdays would be My Day for Lunchtime Switchboard Duty and took me downstairs to the little room where Joan the Switchboard Operator sat all day in charge of the telephone. The horror I felt as Joan tried vainly to teach me how to operate the confusing tangle of leads revisits even now as I recall it. It was clear that this was a rite of passage I had not as yet been introduced to but for a while neither of my concerned new workmates could quite understand why I seemed so paralysed with fear because as Pat pointed out, this part of my job was almost the same as using the telephone at home. I began to cry at that point and Joan looked directly at me and asked in a low but No Nonsense voice that did not encourage falsehoods, if there was in fact a telephone at home. Was I in the habit of ever using one? I shook my head and Joan put on a comforting face and said the problem was simply that I was Phone Shy. Although this was said kindly, at the same time she managed to make it sound like an unpleasant affliction that would be difficult to overcome, like being alcohol dependent or suffering from kleptomania. It was in that instant I knew without any shadow of a doubt that Kate with her pink and gold bedroom in the neo Georgian house and Benedict the well-meaning new stepfather, would both have to be abandoned. And I cried a little harder because it seemed so unfair to banish them before there had been an opportunity to develop their story.

To comfort and reassure me and to stop the cascade of tears that were now hard to switch off Pat suggested we take an illicit coffee break together, downstairs in the new Espresso Bar in Denmark Street, around the corner. She ran upstairs to get permission from Mr. Blackburn and because being Phone Shy sounded serious he agreed at once. As we sipped our coffee she asked me about my family because even as long ago as 1956 it was clearly considered just a little odd that a junior shorthand typist in central London would be quite as Phone Phobic as I appeared to be. I found myself telling her about an entirely newly constructed and more cautiously modest family living in a semi-detached interwar house in Dover Road, Northfleet, inherited by my mother from an aunt who had been killed by a V1 rocket in 1944. Fortunately for us the rocket that killed her did so at the top of the road, on the corner, whilst she was walking back from the library so there was no actual damage to the house itself. Nevertheless it needed modernising but since my father’s tragic death in France my mother, who was a nurse at Gravesend Hospital and who I decided to call Sue, had not really been in a position to attend to this. She was still having to pay my young brother Quentin’s school fees because she was reluctant to take him out of his prep school and expose him to the horrors of Hall Road Boys School. Then, realizing with dismay that the mythical Quentin’s age meant he had been born after the death of Antoine the Resistance Fighter, I added that Sue had entered into a short lived and foolish marriage after the war with James, an accountant from Brighton who had abandoned us after the birth of his child. There were many things Sue aspired to that would make our lives more comfortable. She would like a better kitchen and a fitted cocktail cabinet in the lounge. She longed for a little second hand car, so handy for when she came home late from her hospital shifts. She would dearly love to have a telephone because she certainly had not anticipated being responsible for a Phone Shy daughter, but the priority really had been to upgrade the original bathroom before anything else.

There were some aspects of the Dover Road house, I told Pat, that we would keep because they were such attractive features, like the stained glass windows in the hallway that lit the stairs when you ran up and down them. A lot of people thought Art Moderne features were ugly, I said, beginning to elaborate rather more enthusiastically, but I really liked them. Pat was not listening very attentively. She had finished her coffee and was patting her lips on a paper napkin. I pictured myself sitting on the stairs of the interwar house, totally alone early in the morning, shoulders drenched in a multitiude of colours as the rising sun infiltrated the hall window. At times, I thought, the tranquility of the house reminded me of a church. A small degree of pride was rising within me when I thought about Sue and all the problems she had faced with so much stoicism over the years. I wanted her to be proud of me. I began to feel just a little bit more confident about being Phone Shy because although it was not something anyone would choose to be afflicted with, it could be overcome. I knew that Sue’s daughter was more than capable of dealing with it!

Tuesday, 12 September 2017

Not A Great Deal In Common

As we girls who were not considered exam material prepared with both excitement and trepidation to leave Wombwell Hall, the mechanics of actually getting a place in the workforce were debated anxiously. Although initially it appeared to be daunting, the entire process was effected surprisingly smoothly, primarily I believe because in those days the kind of jobs we had been trained for were plentiful. Miss Hart spoke to us at some length about the sort of office we each thought we might enjoy working in and set up the interview processes with local businesses. It could hardly have been more streamlined. Pamela and Pauline were going to work side by side in Henley’s Typing Pool, the two Margarets and their cohorts were heading for upstairs offices in Queen and Windmill Streets and both Florence and Mavis were to give up shorthand altogether and become copy typists at Bowater Paper Mills. Miss Hart observed us at the end of that final term with an air of contentment and satisfaction. We were a job well done! She was therefore unprepared when the small sub-group of Joyce and Shirley led by me as spokesperson, told her that we were determined to work in London.

London, she told us could only be reliably reached by train and she managed to make the twenty miles that lay between us and the city I was so anxious to bear down upon, sound insurmountable. But when we insisted she asked for Miss Fuller’s permission to make a Toll Call and kindly arranged for us to have interviews with a large employment agency near Charing Cross Station. At around that point Joyce’s father turned up at the last shorthand class of the day and firmly explained that His Girl would be staying in Gravesend and preferably as close to Istead Rise as possible. It eventuated that he had already found her a position with a local builder. So in the end only two of us went together on the Eight Ten to Charing Cross during the last week of term, and I was in the fortunate position of having my expenses for the day funded by the mysterious Benefactors of Orphaned Schoolgirls. Shirley had to pay her own way.

Our excitement was intense as we waited for the Fast Train, stopping only at Dartford and Woolwich Dockyard before reaching the unbearably exotic London Bridge on that Tuesday morning. We were dressed in our best which for me was a black slimline skirt that was rather too tight and had been borrowed from my Posh Cousin Margaret. It didn’t really gel with the hand knitted grey sweater, feverishly finished by my mother the evening before and reluctantly worn under my somewhat shabby and now hated school raincoat which I intended to remove and hang nonchalantly over my arm as we approached our destination. Shirley’s mother had bought her a smart brown boucle suit especially for the occasion with bobble ties at the neck and waist, worn with a small brown felt hat. She looked every inch the office worker and inspected me critically and wanted to know why I wasn’t wearing make up. Not being prepared to tell her that I did not own any I simply shrugged and allowed myself to be persuaded to try hers with the aid of the Ladies Waiting Room mirror. When I did so I rather liked the effect and decided that a full range of my own should be put on my first wage earner’s shopping list.

I felt sick with the sheer exhilaration of being on a fast train heading towards the city of my dreams and with money for morning coffee and lunch in my pocket. With very little difficulty I persuaded Shirley that once we had Got Our Jobs we should spend the remainder of the day exploring even though it seemed that she was rather more in the habit of obeying parental instructions than I was and we had in fact been told to Come Straight Back. We found the agency in The Strand very easily and took the lift to the second floor to a huge room at the back of the building, overlooking the river where we were ushered into separate cubicles to be interviewed by separate middle aged women who both looked a bit like Miss Hart and had the same kind of jolly booming voices.

Mine asked me what my interests were which took me completely by surprise but I explained in great detail that working in an office was merely a stop gap idea for me because before very long I was intending to train as an actress, or failing that, become a writer. I felt after some consideration it would not be pertinent to mention that furthermore, I was also still seriously considering Entering a Nunnery. I had read quite recently somewhere that there was a splendid Silent Order at Marble Arch, which I now understood was almost in the heart of Central London and I intended to check it out at some stage.

The Miss Hart Look Alike listened politely with a small and patient smile upon her face and suggested that I might like to work as a junior shorthand typist in one of the nearby newspaper offices where I would rapidly become familiar with journalistic writing and what it entailed. As newspapers were considered a most unnecessary expense by my mother, I was not in the habit of reading them and so greeted this idea that sounded reminiscent of A Pool, with some alarm. I explained once more that I wanted something much more exciting than that. The Miss Hart Look Alike spent a lot of time trying to find a theatre or a theatrical agent in need of typing help but was not able to. However, we were both delighted when at last she came up with the idea of a Music Publishing Office. She had a niece it appeared who worked in the Music Publishing Industry and that lucky young person was in the habit of tripping over pop stars on a regular basis. I was more than anxious to meet celebrities so I set off up Charing Cross Road towards number 138 and the offices of Francis, Day & Hunter without further delay.

As I strode towards the Music Industry Enterprise I lamented the fate of poor Shirley who was, rather horrifyingly, heading towards the Typing Pool of a shipping company near Cannon Street. However, I knew full well that not all of we Wombwell Hall Girls were Cut Out For Fame and Fortune. I began to rather regret the fact that I had persuaded her to meet up later in order that we explore London together. Shirley was not someone I found easy to share confidences with. She had a boyfriend who was in the Merchant Navy and she wanted to Become Engaged and start saving to Get Married. Maybe we didn’t have a great deal in common after all.

Thursday, 31 August 2017

The Folly Of Fake Families


From the relatively tender age of eight or nine I began to throw myself enthusiastically into the exciting biosphere of Fake Families, inventing a variety of unlikely maternal replacements for my own mother who continued to fall far short of my youthful expectations, and a diverse range of phony siblings. Thus many happy hours were spent making notes of names and ages and details of the varied and very pleasing homes in which we lived. At times I simply moved us from 28 York Road to a six room eighteenth century weatherboard cottage on the outskirts of Gravesend such as the pleasant, rural communities of Shorne or Cliffe, first taking care to install a totally modern bathroom at great cost on the first floor landing. On other occasions we settled happily into a late nineteenth century house in Darnley Road with Art Nouveau stained glass in the ground floor windows and black and white tiling in the entrance hall. For a brief month or two, recalling a trip to Upnor on the pillion of my father’s motor bike, a newly created family took up residence in an ancient cottage in the High Street and enjoyed the envious gaze of Sunday afternoon visitors on coach outings to Places of Interest.

I usually gave myself a new and more acceptably middle class name like Penelope – but was affectionately known as Penny to my friends. Penny’s particular mother for some months was Julia, a famous pianist. Her stepfather Nick gambled, a habit that was tolerated by Julia with good humour because she earned so much money on her overseas tours that it didn’t really matter. There was also a younger brother called Sebastian who played the violin and was something of a prodigy causing Penny a lot of resentment which I happily discussed at school at some length at morning playtime. This Faux Family was loosely based on the characters in a Noel Streatfield book and soon bored my classmates at St Botolph’s because even the keen readers found Enid Blyton more to their taste.

When I tired of Penelope I became Stephanie (known as Stevie) living with a film actress mother, Fiona and an ubiquitous stepfather who hovered in the background, who went by the name of Cameron and was largely absent. He drove a white sports car, was a lawyer and spent most of his time in London but often flew to New York for reasons that I could not adequately explain except that the idea appealed to me.

When Stevie failed to deliver suitable stimulus I became the even more exotic Carlotta, secret daughter of King Juan Carlos of Spain, conceived with a maidservant. By this time I was a little older and becoming more familiar with irregular conceptions as one by one my older cousins began to encounter obstacles in life which my mother described as Getting Into Trouble if she sympathized with them or Taking Trouble Home to her Poor Mother if she did not. In Carlotta’s case, quite unlike the suiters of my unfortunate relatives, the generous Juan Carlos purchased a dog breeding business for his illegitimate daughter. It was situated at High Halstow and the breeds ranged from tiny toy terriers to giant wolfhounds. Carlotta lived there in a thatched cottage with two Spanish serving maids who helped with the daily exercise on the sheep levels. Every few months Juan Carlos visited and took Carlotta to afternoon tea in the village of Cobham, greatly impressing the villagers who somehow or other all realized at once that he had an aristocratic background.

By the time I had spent two years at Northfleet Secondary School for Girls and was about to go on to Wombwell Hall, I was living quite a number of fictional lives and in order not to become confused with regard to the various events taking place within them, I was forced to keep ever more extensive and meticulous notes on the detail of each. I was beginning to realise that being a committed fantasist was not straightforward and took more time and energy than most girls of my age would have been prepared to give to such a project. Homework became an irritating interruption and was frequently left uncompleted. On the other hand, whilst others were rebelling about early bedtimes I was more than happy to have early nights, particularly in winter, in order to give enough time to what I called Thinks, which was more accurately the hours of invention and planning concerning the progress through life of my many alter-egos.

My friend Molly from number 31 York Road, had initially wholeheartedly gone along with the idea of fantasy families but her own inventions did not change as frequently as mine did and generally involved Doris Day in one way or another, either as a mother or an older sister. As my own creations grew ever more complicated I could not help noticing that her enthusiasm began to wane which I thought was a pity. As for my confused classmates, I neither knew nor cared what they thought of the rapidly revolving characters I claimed were my closest relatives. My prime concern with regard to school was to ensure that my mother did not turn up to any of the Meet The Teachers evenings which fortunately were not organized terribly often in those days.

From time to time I casually made mention of my mythical stepfathers to my teachers and as I was not completely naive I was keen to avoid the possibility of them coming face to face with a woman they would at once realise was not likely to be married to Nick the Gambler or Cameron the Lawyer. To complicate matters even further I had made each mother a mere thirty years old, having conceived Penny or Stevie and their like as a teenager. The Real Fathers had usually perished in air accidents in the latter year or two of the war. Sometimes I cut out glamorous magazine photographs and claimed they were my mother, regardless of the unlikely possibility of her ever actually owning a mink coat or attending a film premiere in Leicester Square.

In my first year at Northfleet Girls’Secondary School, Sylvia Mason jabbed her forefinger at the woman in the latest picture (who was shaking hands with Princess Margaret I seem to recall) and asked me to explain how it was, if that was my Mum that we were living in York Road. This was an unfortunate question and I had to explain that we didn’t live there all the time but that my Mother liked to spend time there because she had been left the house by my real father’s childhood Nanny. My reading material had by that time greatly extended, and involved Edwardian family sagas of wronged women and lost fortunes. Sylvia’s obvious distrust of my story did not unduly bother me since she had herself told most unlikely tales about being an Identical Twin whose sister, Susan, was Brainy and now attended The Girls’Grammar and furthermore there were two other sets of twins in her family, boys of four and six. That seemed most unlikely to be true. My part time friend Shirley Munro said that Sylvia was known for her lies and it was because her family had recently been rehoused into a brand new Council House on the spanking new, wide avenued Singlewell Estate. It had gone to her head, she thought. Undeterred Sylvia continued to distrust my own stories and said that she thought I talked a Load of Bully Beef. Her Aunt used to live in York Road and had said for years that those houses ought to be condemned because there were no bathrooms and you had to walk up the back yard to go to the lav.

I told her she could think what she liked and that her ignorant thoughts did not bother me but I walked away with a thumping heart because this particular exchange had been witnessed by at least half a dozen interested Form One girls. On the other hand many of us at that time lived in houses that should be condemned, all without running hot water and bathrooms. However, I came to the reluctant conclusion that it would be prudent to stop producing magazine photographs of my mother.

Decades later I was startled when my brother admitted that he had indulged in very similar family replacement fictions. We each then claimed to wonder how and why the fabrications had come about, and asked each other what on earth could have prompted such gross deceptions and falsehoods. But even as we professed to analyse the matter we were both totally aware that the answer was straightforward and simple and that no mystery was attached to it. Unlike our friends and neighbours we each, even at a very tender age became wholly discontented with what appeared to be Our Lot.

Wednesday, 23 August 2017

THE CRITICAL CONSIDERATION OF AN EXAM YEAR

As our time at Wombwell Hall drew to a close we Girls Of 2SC were all given Important Letters to take home to our parents. Miss Eatch clutched the slim white envelopes to her person, just beneath her ample and somewhat wobbly bosom that we were inclined rather unkindly, to snigger at. She had some concerns about the following year, she explained, and wanted to tell us what the letters contained. We learned that the majority of parents were informed that their daughter had been an enthusiastic and pleasant class member who would do well in the workplace, and positively thrive in a nice clean, well run Typing Pool. They were daughters any parent could be proud of. Several students were cautiously nominated for possibly enrolling for a further year because with focus and commitment they might well find themselves able to pass the new-fangled GCSE Ordinary Level Examination and that would undoubtedly lead on to an even bigger and brighter Typing Pool. A select few of the white envelopes generously praised the intellectual potential of the girl named within and strongly recommended the extra school year as there was little doubt that she was made of the stuff that passed exams. Such girls might well become Personal Assistants to Managing Directors in far flung places like Maidstone.

But most exciting of all - one of us was actually considered to be capable of Getting A Proper Degree at some stage in the future. She shouldn’t really be one of us at all because she belonged in a Grammar School. Valerie was University Material Without A Shadow Of A Doubt. When Yvonne who had once been my friend and was now Valerie’s friend heard this she turned and gave the whole class the kind of smile that almost blinded us with its radiance, then bowed her head just a little. Valerie’s success was also her success. I couldn’t help thinking just a little regretfully that it was a good thing she had shed my friendship whilst we were in the early stages of that first Wombwell Hall year as I would never have been capable of instilling such pride in her teenage breast.

Miss Eatch was encouraging us to applaud Valerie’s success and whilst we did so I wondered what A Degree might be and how one went about getting one because judging by Yvonne’s reaction the idea should bring any normal person close to ecstasy and indeed the unusually deferential manner of Miss Eatch herself indicated it was clearly something worth striving for. Valerie, cheeks flushed with pleasure was talking about the relative benefits of Oxford because that’s where Daddy had wanted to go before his education had been interrupted, and Cambridge which her mother favoured. I wondered what form the interruption that she was managing to make sound like a tragedy of gigantic proportion, had taken. And what was to happen to Yvonne whilst Valerie was involved in furthering her education in places that sounded even further from Gravesend than either Maidstone or London?

After school, walking down the driveway, past the badger setts in the bankside and into Hall Road itself, Joyce Williams who had recently become a half-hearted Close Friend, asked what I thought the attitude of Those At Home might be at the thought of me enrolling in the Exam Year. We had both been included in Miss Eatch’s second category and so were cautious nominees for exam passing. This was all very flattering in that it plucked us just a little from The Herd, but it had to be borne in mind that when handing over the envelopes Miss Eatch had hesitated before both of us and said that in our case the suggestion carried with it some concern as to our Actual Ability To Apply Ourselves and we should talk it through with our families very thoroughly, Remembering these words and the tone in which they had been uttered I shrugged and said to Joyce that I Couldn’t Care Less which was the 1956 equivalent of Do I Look Bovvered? Joyce said well she cared because she was very keen to get a job. I was still contemplating the various forms a Degree might take and why it couldn’t be taken for example, in London which, had I been Valerie, would have made all the difference in the world.

When I got home with my white envelope it seemed somehow inevitable that my Grandmother would be at the kitchen table with my mother. The large brown teapot covered by the crochet crinoline lady sat between them. Old Nan sniffed and folded her arms across her chest which indicated that she was even more anxious than my mother to know what was inside the envelope and when the contents were read aloud to her there was a silence whilst I looked from one to the other with almost a tinge of excitement. To fill the silence I advised with as much authority I could muster that a lot of the girls were definitely staying on for an extra year and that Valerie had even been told she was University Material and could get a Degree. She might be going to Oxford or even Cambridge but apparently not London.

Old Nan sniffed again and said she wasn’t partial to either of them places. In fact she could never bring herself to trust any place to do with boats and water and it stood to reason. My mother looked uncertain, shaking her head from side to side and suddenly dropping the letter on the table almost as if it was no longer safe to touch it. She said that more school at my age seemed all wrong to her. I was nearly sixteen after all. But my Grandmother, dragging the crinoline lady from the pot so savagely that she almost decapitated her and pouring herself a very full cup, had no doubts whatsoever. She thought that the whole lot of them schoolteachers must be Stark Bleeding Mad and they wanted shooting for even suggesting such a Damn Fool Idea. If she had her way she’d line up the whole lot of them outside that school and Shoot Them soon as look at them. More Schooling? More? For a great girl like me? The only thing I needed in her opinion, and she wasn’t one to give opinions where they wasn’t asked for, was to get up off my Fat Arse and bring in some money.

I softly but courageously asked if that money might be made in the pea fields and she responded with the fact that beans and taters were starting soon and gave me the kind of look that crushed the possibility of further daring comment. What was wrong with me and a fair number of my cousins was that we’d been Molly-coddled, Spoilt Rotten and had too much schooling to put fool ideas into our noddles. She’d never had a day of schooling and yet nobody could say the lack of it had held her back. My mother said little but glanced at the kitchen clock from time to time.

When she left for the 480 bus back to Crayford, me walking beside her to the bus stop and carrying the newspaper parcel of flounder and shrimps that had been purchased during the afternoon, my Grandmother looked sideways at me from time to time, lips pursed and saying nothing. Back at York Road there was a little more sluggish discussion on the benefits of examinations that would ensure a bigger typing pool. In general terms, however, it was decided that at the end of that term I would join the majority of girls in my class and head towards the workplace. To be fair I was not completely against the idea because the thought of becoming a regular wage earner and able to buy a blue Orlon twin set from Marks & Spencer’s if I so wished, greatly appealed to me. And it wasn’t even as if it would be for long because there were of course plans to be made about my Glorious Future. Evaluations to be considered, important decisions weighed up concerning the correct path towards stardom on stage and screen for instance and how I would be able to find enough time to write the best-selling novels I already had planned. Glittering futures needed an enormous amount of forward planning.

Wednesday, 16 August 2017

A Very Junior Typist For The Lovells



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, 12 August 2017

Thoughts On The Great Roy Budd.....

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

Thursday, 10 August 2017

Dimly Lit Corridors of the On Line World

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

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

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

Sunday, 30 July 2017

The Sad Passing Of Playing With Fire

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, 26 July 2017

Black Hands & Smoky Tea

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

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

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

Tuesday, 25 July 2017

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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