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Wednesday, 16 August 2017

A Very Junior Typist For The Lovells



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

My mother’s employers, The Lovells, had donated an outdated office typewriter to me when I first went to Wombwell Hall and began the Commercial Course that was going to give me a nice clean office job.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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, 12 August 2017

Thoughts On The Great Roy Budd.....

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

Thursday, 10 August 2017

Dimly Lit Corridors of the On Line World

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

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

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

Sunday, 30 July 2017

The Sad Passing Of Playing With Fire

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, 26 July 2017

Black Hands & Smoky Tea

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

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

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

Tuesday, 25 July 2017

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, 13 July 2017

A Decent Friendship at Wombwell Hall


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, 8 July 2017

Among Our Souvenirs

Strange to reflect upon the knick-knacks we collect over the years, things that remind us of happy times, significant moments we are reluctant to relinquish.

I seemed to grow up surrounded by such souvenirs, little mementos of noteworthy instances in life that presumably served to lend my mother a glimpse back to times past. The most precious of these lived on the mantelpiece above the kitchen stove that she considered to be a Victorian eyesore and couldn’t wait to replace with what was called a Tiled Surround and was Modern. But I loved the stove, black and solid in its chimney alcove and I never entirely adjusted to its insipidly pink and pale replacement.
The kitchen mantle was the place for the reassuring paraphernalia of daily life, the trappings of a working class presence firmly placed in the middle of the twentieth century. Items evoking less poignant memories of days gone by were firmly positioned on the Front Room mantelpiece, that room accessed immediately from the street and hurried through by all in their haste to reach the warmth and security of the kitchen. It was only in later years I paused to consider it odd that her wedding photographs were consigned there.

The little china ornament importantly announcing that it was A Present From Margate sat always in the kitchen warmth, it’s base of reproduction sea shells losing colour over the decades but regularly prompting the story of the summer day of its purchase. It was a day she would always find difficult to forget because it had definitely been her sister Mag’s idea to lend her the old blue shoes in the first place on account of the smart new ones she had just bought in the market and Mag was determined to wear those new ones come hell or high water to impress her new husband. Well they must have been newly-weds, Mag and Harold, as there were definitely no babies as yet to be cared for while they all, the four of them, skedaddled to the coast for the day on the early train and their little Harold had come ever so quickly after the wedding. Very premature little soul he’d been. The Four of them had been Mag and her Harold together with his brother Les and of course Nellie. Even before the lunchtime pint and cheese sandwich at that pub along the Front in Marine Gardens, she thought it was called The Elephant, Mag was Creating Something Awful and saying that her feet Was Killing Her. Demanded her old blue shoes back and wanted Nellie to wear the new ones if you don’t mind! Would you credit it? But that was Mag all over. There’d been a right set to outside the pub with Mag saying well who did the old blue shoes belong to in the first place? And her Harold joined in too, well he would wouldn’t he? The long and the short of it had been that Nellie was forced to give the shoes up and walk around for the rest of the day in Mag’s new ones that really crippled her. So it hadn’t been much of an outing except she’d won a box of chocolates at Dreamland and on their way back to the station she’d bought the little china ornament – A Present From Margate. Les had wanted to buy it for her but she didn’t think he was much cop, not after her Poor Fred, so she bought it herself which really gave him The Pip.

The grey and white porcelain kitten playing with the ball of wool was another seaside purchase and had come from Southend in the summer of 1939 just before she had, with a certain degree of reluctance, married my father at the Catholic Church in Crayford. Off they had gone on his motor bike to sample the delights of a day by the sea. It was he who had bought it on this occasion along with a manicure set. He had laughed, shuffled his feet a bit in the motor cycle boots and talked about Plighting His Troth. She hadn’t entirely understood the term but had a good grasp of what he meant by it. Well she wasn’t completely daft after all was she? Later Mag and Old Nan had nearly piddled themselves laughing at the manicure set because she hadn’t got no nails of course; bitten to the bone they were and had been ever since Poor Fred Went. By rights it was Poor Fred she should have married of course and they’d been properly engaged for several years before the TB took him but then he would not have wanted to see her On The Shelf would he? She had loved him dearly. Once or twice she showed me the special card he had given her on the occasion of her twenty fifth birthday, ivory satin with red and gold lettering. It was wrapped in tissue paper. Inside he had written To My Sweetheart From Fred.

So it hadn’t been easy to marry Bernard Joseph Hendy and in the days before the wedding she had discussed the momentous decision more than once with Mag, and sometimes also with Maud and Martha because after all that’s what sisters were for and blood’s thicker than water. In terms reminiscent of the young Diana Spencer in a time that was yet to come she reminded herself and her siblings that he was a Good Man and didn’t drink nor use bad language. Her sisters anxiously observed their bridesmaids’ dresses and enthusiastically agreed and so of course did her mother, reminding her that The Bleeding Church was Booked and calling her a Silly Mare Who Didn’t Know Her Arse From Her Elbow. And so in August of that year the wedding duly took place and although the photographs of the event were to live always in the chill of the Front Room, the porcelain kitten played happily with his ball of wool on the kitchen mantelpiece from that day forward. She couldn’t for the life of her remember what had happened to the manicure set.

The cobalt blue vases and little jug decorated with enameled flowers had been given to them as a wedding present from Great Aunt Martha who lived near the station in Northfleet and always appeared to me to be very, very old indeed. My mother admitted once or twice that at the time she was given them she couldn’t honestly admit to being as Keen as Mustard but Great Aunt Martha had said they were antique and known as Bristol Glass and hard to come by. Nellie was not altogether taken with antiques but my father had investigated the history of Bristol Glass which by the time they received them was an art that had almost died out and it was his belief that they should be treasured as one day they might well be Worth Something. And as Great Aunt Martha was a frequent visitor they were kept always in pride of place in the kitchen and over the years my brother and I became fond of them and most reluctant for them to be sold when this was suggested by Old Nan after the death of our father at a time when we were particularly short of the readys.

The kitchen at York Road was where we routinely made our rag rugs each winter to replace those so worn they had to be discarded. Old clothing was harvested and laboriously cut into strips then pegged onto squares of sacking. Such an easy task that a child of five could learn to master it, and did so. We sat in the dying firelight on winter evenings from November to February and worked whilst listening to the radio – Life With The Lyons, Journey Into Space, Round The Horne and Meet The Huggetts. And of course the fruits of our labour were seen as a necessary winter pastime rather than possible future mementos of days gone by. I had completely forgotten about Rag Rugs and our annual ritual of producing them until I visited my brother’s house in Lincolnshire decades later. Rag Rugs had been utterly abandoned to the depths of memory until I came face to face with one once more in his Lincolnshire study, neatly settled on polished wood and announcing its presence with riotous colours. Then I was at once aware how overwhelmingly powerful these mementos that connect us with the past are. Instantaneously I was propelled back into that long ago kitchen at 28 York Road, harking back with longing to a time that had gone for ever and would never return.

Later I realised that he had kept safe all those knickknacks and keepsakes of our mother’s and I was suffused with gladness, a hard to describe delight akin to love for A Present From Margate and a Porcelain Kitten. But the most agonizing tug on the heart was unquestionably for the ivory satin card with red and gold lettering - To My Sweetheart From Fred. The tissue paper had gone though.

Saturday, 24 June 2017

The Righting Of Wrongs

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, 12 June 2017

A Blissful Burgeoning of Bathrooms


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, 3 June 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, 25 May 2017

Glorious Food of the 1940s & 1950s

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, 20 May 2017

A North African Aunt

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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