Sunday, 29 January 2017
In the late 1940s in working class families generally speaking the adults around us imparted no information whatsoever about puberty or sex and we knew better than to ask questions. It may have been different for the middle classes but we, who knew our place in society, relied mostly on facts gleaned from local twelve year old girls who might have started to menstruate and couldn’t keep quiet about it, or those who had an older sister, married or about to get married or, even better, a newly pregnant sister, unmarried and still young enough to pass on a detail or two to those younger still. It was Joan Bedford, daughter of my mother’s closest local confidante, who told me what could possibly happen when mothers and fathers retired nightly to the marital bed. She was pink with excitement at the thought of passing on what she had recently learned. `Do you know what your Mum and Dad do when they go to bed?’ Our mothers sat drinking cups of tea at our kitchen table. `No – what do they do?’ I was only half interested because without the stimulus of other children, Joan was a very boring playmate. `They DO one another!’ she whispered, leaving me totally confused. When I belligerently demanded to know what she meant, Joan was more than eager to enlighten me. `Your Dad puts his willy into your Mum’s belly and that’s how you get babies. Men really like doing it but women don’t – they hate it but they have to do it if they want babies!’ Joan was breathlessly thrilled but I told her that it sounded most unlikely to me and then added, just in case, `Anyhow, I knew that already.’ The sad fact was that my understanding was so minimal I was not going to be easily convinced. Could it really be true? To test the information, a day or two later I passed it on to Brenda Stewart who said she did not believe me because she knew perfectly well that the midwife had brought her baby sister, Judy – she’d seen her unwrap the newborn from her bag. So I relayed the news on to Milly Foreman who said she didn’t think that was quite right but she would ask her older sister June if she could get her by herself. Later she came back with the startling news that a couple who wanted a baby first had to make an appointment with the Doctor. We debated what the purpose of the visit to the Doctor might be because Milly did not actually know. June had been vague. We decided between us that the most likely scenario was that he would blindfold the young husband and wife, so that they could not see as that would obviously be indelicate if the genitals were to be involved, then he would engineer whatever act was necessary – possibly even that described to me by Joan. That was that for the time being so I was totally unprepared for my parents’ joint verbal assault on me a day or two later as I wandered in from school. My father must have been on either an early or a late shift as he was in the kitchen painting a door, then drawing a metal comb through the wet paint to make extraordinary patterns. The effect was not unpleasing but the general atmosphere in the room was distinctly hostile. I looked from my mother to my father and nervously asked if anything was wrong and my stomach began to churn. What had I done? I asked again what was wrong. `I think you KNOW very well what’s wrong,’ My mother said at last. I stared at her at once fearful but uncomprehending whilst rapidly going through all my transgressions of recent days and wondering which one it was. Did they know I had kept the collection money I’d been given for Church? Or that I had thrown the new blue woolen and much hated Pixie Bonnet knitted by my mother away over a Springhead Road garden wall, and that it hadn’t been stolen by another girl at school? Did they know I had said Shit and Bugger twice to Peter Dyke during Silent Reading when he insisted on grabbing the book I wanted to read? My father combed wet paint furiously and did not look in my direction. `If I thought for one moment she had said that I would give her a beating she wouldn’t forget for a month,’ he told my mother. Whatever iniquity I was guilty of it was obviously Bad! I became dizzy with dread and black fingers of sick panic clawed their way from my stomach into the back of my throat. What terrible thing had I said? My mind raced as I tried unsuccessfully to recall everything I had said to everyone I knew over the past week. `Well what DID I say?’ I sounded like a whimpering animal even to my own ears. My mother maintained that I already knew what I had said and her cheeks were red-spotted with anger. My father nodded agreement, and the metal comb scraped painfully on the wood making classroom blackboard sounds. For once they were ominously in total accord so it must be a sin of truly gigantic proportions but my memory still failed dismally to recall it. I began to cry. `I don’t know what I’ve said – I truly don’t know what I’ve said.’ She fiddled with a milk bottle top on the table and straightened the sugar bowl, and looked as if she was struggling to even voice the depraved offence, finally demanding, `Did you tell Brenda Stewart that when grownups go to bed at night they DO one another?’ A bombshell! So it was true after all. They actually did engage in that unlikely act no matter how unlikely it had seemed. It had to be true or the re-action would not be so terrifying from them both. I felt hypnotized with horror. My unfortunate mother hated doing it but she did it anyway so that my brother and I could be born, and presumably my father, like all men, actually liked doing it. How could he? I was overwhelmed with disgust and decided there and then that nothing was ever going to induce me to do it and I would simply adopt babies in the unlikely event that I ever wanted them. I wondered if God really understood what these grubby grown-ups did when they retired for the night and if so why He did not do something to stop it. He of all people should be able to think up a more acceptable way to bring babies into the world. I said firmly, `I did not say that and Brenda Stewart is a dirty liar! But of course Brenda’s mother had already angrily confronted them both with the facts of the matter, dragging a tearful and protesting Brenda with her. She no longer wanted her Brenda to have anything to do with me. Brenda, it turned out, was being brought up properly and must not be contaminated by the likes of me who everyone knew was a child with a dirty little mouth. Not for the first time my unfortunate parents were advised to do something about me. Undeterred, I continued to lie. I told them Brenda was lying in order to protect Joan Bedford because I had heard that Joan Bedford was saying that kind of disgusting thing at school to people though I most certainly did not listen to filthy things like that and I would never, ever pass such information on to others. My father looked at me with distrust and and repeated that if he thought for a single moment I was capable of saying such a thing I would get the thrashing I deserved. My mother said she would most certainly investigate via Mrs. Bedford but all the same she thought it more likely it was me who was the liar. `Your trouble is that you lie all the time,’ she said, `And that’s why you’ll never have any real decent friends because you’re a born liar. Nobody will trust you.’ I could think of no cogent argument because this was true. `Well perhaps,’ I retorted furiously, panic subsiding a little now as I began to realise that establishing Joan Bedford as the possible initial culprit had introduced a lifesaving seed of doubt, `Perhaps it’s just possible that nobody in this house sets a very good example where lies are concerned.’ I astonished even myself with this sudden burst of daring. As my mother’s open hand flew towards my face, I ducked and she was only half successful. I was a little cow, she said, and what on earth did I mean. I looked meaningfully towards my father even though I knew that as far as duplicity was concerned my mother was no saint herself. Strangely, he had turned his attention totally to the half painted door. I wondered what he was thinking. He did not say anything more and seconds later, to fill the silence, began to whistle. A few days later I was in Joan’s back yard watching her dog Lily, newly delivered of puppies, feed them, something my mother would not normally allow because I might ask awkward questions about birth. In fact she was half correct and I might have done so a year earlier but I was now nearly nine years old and knew better than to discuss the arrival and subsequent suckling of new life, even puppies, with adults. I strained to hear what was going on through the open window. But when the what-grownups-do-in-bed story was repeated to Mrs. Bedford, she seemed to receive it far more sagely than my own parents, and said that kids picked up a lot of things they shouldn’t these days and maybe it was best to ignore it. Though she hastened to add that she did not believe for a moment that her little Joannie would have said such a thing, or if she did, she certainly did not understand what she was saying. Later, whilst pretending to practice times tables, I listened as my parents further discussed the episode. My mother said that although she still had a lot of time for Mrs Bedford in her opinion that youngest Bedford girl knew far too much and was just a bit old fashioned and this unfortunate situation wasn’t helped by knowing all the ins and outs of the bloody dog and the bloody puppies. It just wasn’t natural. My father looked towards me briefly and away again when I met his gaze determined not to blink. He said something vague in agreement. I was up to the eight times. I chanted a little louder, a little jubilantly. So I had been granted a stay of execution – even an unofficial pardon – a reprieve! I resolved that In the future I would be far more careful about passing on unusual snippets of information just in case they turned out to be true and part of that raft of indelicate and unseemly knowledge I was too young to be privy to.
Saturday, 28 January 2017
Let me state here and now that I was once what was then generally known as a Fat Lump. At sixteen I was decidedly overweight and on only one occasion made the horrifyingly embarrassing mistake of getting on the `I Speak Your Weight’ machine at Charing Cross Station. The memory makes me shudder. It seemed to me that I was fighting flab for years and I often claimed that I could gain weight on a diet. I’m not sure now how true that latter contention was, but I do remember saying it. Once upon a time it simply was not a good thing to be fat and not so very long ago either. Thankfully I lost the weight dramatically, suddenly (long story not for today) and though I would like to say that from then on I never looked back that would also be untrue. I tend to gain weight very quickly and easily but these days I seem to have less trouble losing it. When I was still running school holiday courses for children as recently as 2006 I can recall being advised by those who knew best to remove an image of an overweight ten year old on our advertising leaflets because it `sent the wrong message’. I took the advice. So it was with some scepticism that I began to take note of the Embrace Fatties trend that is firmly taking hold in this part of the globe – and I am sure elsewhere also. New Zealand is host to large numbers of large people of course and as every local schoolchild is aware, in some Pacific Island communities Big Is Beautiful. The Oldest Son reminded me quite recently that here in God’s Own Country, we long since ceased to argue about that. He said I would get used to the trend then he added that not so very long ago we all had to remember not to use the term Mongol and keep up with how we were now required to refer to African Americans. He further pointed out that excess weight is a disability like having no legs. Nevertheless the hasty manner in which we are being primed for not just Acceptance of the Obese, but Admiration also is a little too rapid for me. Overweight twelve year old boys waxing lyrical about healthy budget food cartons delivered to the family’s door pop up during commercial breaks on Prime Time TV, followed by travel ads fronted by larger than necessary young women cheerfully displaying their holiday wardrobe of huge and unflattering sundresses and the corpulent middle aged no longer make room for others on buses during rush hour travel. All of this headlong and reckless rush towards approval and approbation has been eclipsed for me this week, however, by an astonishing video clip on social media featuring a most unfortunately obese teenage ballet dancer. Even more bewildering are the comments made by one viewer after another, applauding, boosting and encouraging her. Maybe I’m simply becoming a crabby and cantankerous old crone – after all it would be true to say that I still grapple with same sex marriage so it could be that a confidently rotund teen proudly pirouetting will never get my vote.
Wednesday, 25 January 2017
One way and another, Eyes have been to the forefront of discussion lately with me. Even The Skin Man politely enquired about my recent eye surgery as he menaced above me with his gadget that dispenses icy and agonising horror to oust alien skin blemishes. When I finished telling him and he had stopped looking slightly bored he said cheerfully, `Well, if something like that’s going to happen, you can be sure it will be to a doctor’s family.’ Then he added, `He probably feels worse than you, and there I had to agree with him. Later I told The Husband that the overall level of interest from friends, family and those considering eye surgery themselves, deserved a blog update and he murmured something but didn’t look up from his book which probably meant that he wanted to take a break from the subject. So, further to my initial post on Sunday 2nd October 2016 (See: A Very Nearly Uneventful Case of Cataract Surgery….) the situation four months on is that things have definitely not progressed as well as I had hoped. Vision for reading and computer work is now greatly improved but vision for driving (my greatest concern), watching TV, navigating the aisles in the supermarket and even seeing across a room is definitely not good at all. The Eye Man calls it a Refractive Surprise which makes it sound almost like something from a restaurant dessert menu. He explained that this particularly unhappy Surprise is an outcome for only a small percentage of patients and added that it certainly renders my distance vision as `less than ideal’ to which I could only enthusiastically agree. The problem seems to lie with my Axial Lengths and The Eye Man has shrewdly noted (and I can’t help wishing he had noted this earlier in the saga but there again perhaps I am just being picky) that these are on the short side. This shortness coupled with something called the Intraocular Power of the particular lens used being moderately high, has resulted in an outcome that neither of us wanted and The Eye Man is just as upset by this as I am. Correction: his level of distress probably outstrips my own judging by the manner in which our previously cosy relationship has crumbled. His acute disappointment on my first post-operative visit at the end of last year has been compounded further by the fact that he has more recently discovered a second quite separate problem that also only applies to a small percentage of unfortunates. It involves something called Clouding of the Capsules which I cannot say I altogether understand and did not like to enquire needlessly for clarification on account of the level of The Eye Man’s obvious pain concerning my case. I just tried to give him as much support as possible during what is clearly a harrowing time for him but it’s not easy because he has rapidly gone from smiling, charming and chatty to scowling, indifferent and distant and when he can bring himself to speak, I even thought I detected a note or two of hostility. On the other hand that might simply be my inbuilt paranoia. The Husband is wont to remind me forcibly and frequently that I do have a tendency towards obsessive distrust in some matters. To solve the problem of the initial Surprise (regarding Refraction) The Eye Man was at first going to insert a further lens that he assured me would correct the error. That was immediately cheering! A week or two later he seemed to have abandoned that plan and instead arranged for me to see his friend over the road, John The Optician. A contact lens in the offending eye was the new plan until Stability took place. John, happily far less hampered by disappointment in my plight than The Eye Man, said that if I preferred it, old fashioned glasses for driving could be organised and even be tinted for glare. I did prefer it. So there the matter rested until The Eye Man and I met once again recently. Over the summer break the glasses worked reasonably well for driving, and also for TV watching if I remembered to bring them up from the car. However, I believed this to be an interim measure and all in all I was very much looking forward to seeing The Eye Man once again, confidently expecting he would perhaps suggest laser correction similar to that he offered to a friend who had surgery on the same day with a similar sad result. She also had mid distance problems for which his prompt laser surgery seemed to work wonderfully well. I’m not sure about the Length of her Axials of course and my own unfortunate Shortness in this regard might mean that this particular fix is just not feasible for me. On all this, I determined to consult The Eye Man’s expertise and experience. Sadly, in the event he was clearly too distressed for in depth discussion on the matter, and I could not bring myself to heap more problems upon him Nevertheless, despite his obvious angst he did valiantly manage to remind me a fair number of times that I had been warned about all the possible negative side effects of cataract surgery and that some people simply fell into those Small Percentage Categories and that furthermore I had made Choices on the basis of the information he had helpfully provided. He used the word Choices a good deal. He also reminded me that I could now see well enough for reading and if I actually needed to drive I had the glasses from John the Optician. He pointed out that it had been my Choice to turn down what he now called The Contact Lens Trial. This sounded significant so despite misgivings I did summon up the courage to say (as gently as possible) that John The Optician seemed to be of the opinion that whether I chose the Contact Lens or the Glasses was beside the point because the outcome would be the same. As John was clearly the expert in this respect I decided to believe him and simply made another Choice. The Eye Man had his back to me now, silent once again and observing his computer screen. I rashly took the opportunity to ask a question pertaining to the whole unhappy business of my surgery. Would I have had a happier result perhaps if something more simple than the ultra-complex and costly Symphony Lens had been used? He answered at once `No, not at all,’ he said decisively and turned to look hard and meaningfully at me, adding, `You made that Choice remember – just as you made the Choice about the Contact Lens Trial’ and I began to imagine that his tone was slightly ominous. This was clearly no time to burden him further and after all, this wasn’t All About Me. To be fair, just before I left he did tell me that if laser treatment was found to be necessary in the future, when things had Settled, he could in fact actually do it for me if I wanted him to OR I could have it done through the Public Hospital System. The good news is that he plans to see me again in one year. I’m really hopeful that he will be feeling far less fragile by then; and if not, then there’s always the Public Hospital System isn’t there?
Saturday, 21 January 2017
For several weeks following the death of our father, my four year old brother, and I were given treats by the neighbours and generally approached with care and even caution, presumably due to the possible emotional trauma we were suffering. Bernard was simply confused, having not been told that his father had died and I was under strict instructions not to enlighten him, my mother feeling the best way forward was that he should simply forget he had existed in the first place. This strategy was unwise and was to have a profound effect upon him in the future but for the time being, unused to treats being lavished upon us, we revelled in the attention. We were invited to tea by my father’s foreman from the Cement Works who had a family of two slightly hysterical girls called Brenda and Sylvia, and two foster sons called Kevin and David. They were what my mother called `Good People’ and attended a Methodist Chapel regularly. We were excited and more than a little anxious. Being invited out to tea was not something we were accustomed to. Dressed in our best clothes, we walked the two kilometres from York Road and I had to hold Bernard’s hand all the way. It was a bitterly cold January day but there was a cheerful fire in the Foreman’s living/dining room which was impressively quite separate from their kitchen. Theirs was an upper working class terraced house but with a little front garden and a narrow entrance hall. I was only too aware how badly our own home environment compared and would have cheerfully had my finger nails pulled out to have lived in such luxury; imagine coming home to a house with an entrance hall and thus not having to walk directly from the street into the front room! Furthermore I later discovered this lavish residence also had an inside toilet in a real bathroom where little pink fluffy towels were available if you happened to want to wash your hands. As I was not in the habit of washing my hands after visiting the toilet I did not use them but instead tried to imagine the indulgence of never having to don coat and scarf before traipsing forth into the backyard on winter nights. There was a freshly ironed blue and white cloth on the table and it was set for six – the two excitable girls, their young foster brothers and we two. A plate of bread and butter was in the centre and beside it a little dish of strawberry jam with a spoon, another plate of assorted biscuits and pieces of homemade gingerbread and in the very centre of the table, in pride of place, six chocolate tea cakes wrapped in silver paper. I knew what they were because I had often longingly examined them in their tempting red and white boxes in Trokes’ corner shop, and at the Co-op. My mother never bought them because they were, she said, `too pricey’ but occasionally opted instead for a more substantial Lyons Individual Fruit Pie which could be cut into sizeable portions and still feed three. We two sat at the table more than a little ill at ease because of our excitement. It was just like being in a Noel Streatfield story. Bernard was offered bread and butter with jam which he unhesitatingly turned down in favour of gingerbread and biscuits. I had read enough about this particular social situation to know we were meant to begin with the bread and butter option and so, glaring at him just a little, I did, working my way methodically towards the gingerbread and biscuits. Bernard was asked if he would like another piece of gingerbread which he refused. Would he perhaps like a chocolate tea cake the hovering foreman’s wife asked? He nodded enthusiastically and could scarcely get the silver paper off fast enough, then looked at the dainty morsel as if he could not believe his good fortune before beginning to slowly nibble around the edges. The rest of us began a stilted afternoon tea conversation about the latest Enid Blyton book that Brenda was reading, all the while taking glances at the miscreant in our midst. I was torn between fury towards him for letting me down on the very first occasion in my life I was invited out to tea, and anger at myself for not warning him in advance about social etiquette. Of all this my brother remained blissfully unaware. One of the boys pointed out that it wasn’t fair to get a chocolate tea cake without eating any bread and butter. He was quelled by a fierce look from his foster mother and in the interim Bernard’s progress around the edges of the teacake had become rapid and he was already licking odd bits of chocolate from his fingers. `That was very nice’, he remarked conversationally and shook his head when offered biscuits or more gingerbread. Meanwhile even whilst engaging in conversation, all the host children except Kevin had demolished the required amount of bread and biscuits and were tucking into their own chocolate tea cake. I joined them. One solitary silver wrapped cake remained in the middle of the table, now eyed anxiously by Kevin. The host mother urged him to hurry up and began to take off her pinny and fold it, cheerfully asking if her two guests would like something more. I shook my head. Bernard was now sitting on both his hands, his cheeks slightly red, a smear of chocolate on his chin. He paused for an agonising two or three seconds and then to my extreme horror said loudly, nodding towards the centre of the table - `I’d like that tea cake please’. She gave it to him immediately whilst Kevin began a howl of protest, `But that one is mine – it’s mine – it’s mine.’ He was ignored by Bernard who hastily ripped off the covering and began to cram it into his mouth before she could change her mind. Kevin threw himself on the floor and crawled under the table, continuing to cry loudly. David swung to and fro on his chair making baby noises. The two girls looked wide eyed and shocked, mouths open. I wished a hole would appear in the Axminster carpet for me to disappear into. I had never in my eleven and a half years of life felt so utterly humiliated and let down – imagine having a brother who ate the last tea cake! What could possibly be worse? On the way home I did not hold his hand. `Why did you ask for the last tea cake?’ I demanded to know as we reached the corner of Perry Street. `Because I wanted it,’ he said unhesitatingly. Through gritted teeth I snarled that it was obvious he wanted it but that eating the last teacake simply wasn’t done. `Why not?’ he wanted to know. I considered giving him some extended punishment but in the end thought better of it. Probably as he grew older and learned to read proper books with chapters, he would begin to understand the rather complex social rules pertaining to those who aspired to join the lower middle classes and thus be invited out to afternoon tea where exotic items like teacakes were served in the first place. It had begun to snow on the way back and when we got home there was a huge fire in the kitchen. `Well did they give you a good tea?’ our mother wanted to know. Bernard said, `Yes, it was good. They have different jam to us – it doesn’t come in a jar - it comes in a dish…….and they have chocolate teacakes in silver paper. I ate two of them and I kept the paper.’ He pulled several wrinkled and creased pieces of silver paper from his pocket, placed them gently on the kitchen table and began to examine them reverently. I was astonished to find my eyes filling suddenly with tears. I bolted upstairs before either of them noticed.
Wednesday, 18 January 2017
By the time I was eight years old I was already thoroughly mortified to admit that I lived in York Road, Northfleet. You could say I was an eight year old elitist or simply a snob. This attitude was not helped by a steady diet of Enid Blyton books from the local library where the child characters, when they were not actually rushing about the countryside in horse drawn caravans solving mysteries, dwelled in detached houses with garages alongside. Even before I held a library card I had realized that some children, including local ones, lived a completely different lifestyle to us and our York Road neighbours. The local doctor for instance, who ran his surgery from his home on nearby London Road. De Warren House was a rather grim Victorian building which seemed impossibly tall and grand to me and whilst I was urged to be good and quiet and wait patiently for our turn, the doctor’s children could be clearly heard, and sometimes even seen, being decidedly less good and definitely less quiet. Even as a pre-schooler I envied them their freedom and their rowdy confidence. Life in less salubrious areas of Northfleet was of necessity quite dissimilar, the very communities coming about as they did out of a sudden jolt of economic expansion. In the nineteenth century this thrust forward had led to the speedy creation of suburban London and an unprecedented demand for the supply of building materials to the capital. The long abandoned mines of North West Kent, some of which dated back to medieval times, were admirably positioned to meet this demand. The Thames and Medway Rivers and the rapidly expanding rail network provided an easy route for movement of materials and so the area between Lewisham and Sittingbourne was subjected to massive opencast excavation of chalk for the cement and clay needed for the yellow bricks that built most of Victorian London. So it was that our little corner of Kent was created. Sleepy Thameside fishing villages were abruptly displaced and redesigned for the purposes of industry. Victorian `new towns’ such as the environs of Northfleet High Street and Jeremiah Rosher’s extravagantly named Rosherville began to host rows of hurriedly erected worker cottages. Northfleet’s cherry orchards at Huggins Fields, first planted at the behest of Henry VIII himself were said to have been swept aside during this period of change and this was when the village at The Hill reluctantly became part of a small but well developed township itself uneasily poised between the extremes of that which was urban and that which was rural. And this uncomfortable position still remained when I was growing up in the nineteen forties and fifties when the older people reminisced about collecting watercress at Springhead years before and their own parents gathering cherries where Huggens College Alms Houses now stood. They shook their heads and wondered at the rural idyll seemingly so recently lost. They also spoke of dene holes and told elaborate stories of the ground collapsing beneath them as they played as children, how one child simply disappeared into the earth and was never seen again. The very siting of some of the rows of terraced housing did nothing to ease the underlying feeling of instability, perched as they were at times on narrow ridges of land between the once again abandoned pits, and interconnecting passages beneath. York Road was lined on both sides with identical cottages built in eighteen forty and we lived at number twenty eight for a weekly rent of eight shillings and sixpence. The original colour of the bricks had long turned to an unappealing sludge grey. Each dwelling was of the two and a half rooms up and down variety, the half being the scullery extension into the yard at the rear and the attic directly above it that was too small to act as a bedroom. Downstairs was the room entered directly from the street known as `the front room’, and the kitchen beyond it. Between them was a narrow steep staircase leading to the bedrooms above. In the kitchen was a coal range of the type much admired these days by beautiful young people struggling into their first homes. In other words certainly not a greatly coveted Aga but nevertheless better than nothing and looking a little similar to the untrained eye. Most of the cooking was done on this range, roasts and jacket potatoes cooked in the oven, and of course proper toast at the front grill as long as the fire was right. A gas stove had been installed in the miniscule scullery at the rear not long before the war in an effort to modernise, but this device was only rarely used. The scullery also had a big stone sink and a `copper’ in which the weekly wash was done once a fire had been lit underneath. The wash was churned up and down by hand with a copper stick that was not of course made of copper and later I wondered at the terminology. Big bars of yellow Sunlight soap were used and little bags of `blue’ which apparently and inexplicably kept the sheets white. In the very early years of the war, some houses still had to collect their water from communal taps in the street even though most of the pipe work had been carried out to run water into each scullery and it must have been a great day indeed when the work was finally finished. Even when the thoroughly modern up-to-the-minute gas stove was in use occasionally on a Sunday morning, the scullery was always cold, presumably because of the stone flagged floor and the gap between the bottom of the door and the flags where the wind whistled mournfully through. Once a bat must have somehow accompanied that gusty airstream and hung in the corner above the copper and would not be shifted no matter how hard my mother tried. Eventually my grandmother grabbed it with her bare hands and threw it out of an upstairs window. Bat or no bat, and raging gale notwithstanding, the scullery was where the once weekly bath took place. The aluminium or `tin’ bath was taken from its hook on the outside wall of the scullery, pots of water boiled on the range and everyone in the family took turns to luxuriate in soap suds – often that very same `Sunlight’ that served the family wash. My mother was baffled by those who would extravagantly use `toilet soap’ as an aid to bathing. Between 1940 and 1945 we were a family of just two so the water remained relatively unsoiled. The Smiths of Shepherd Street would have had a greater water pollution problem on bath night, there being nine of them. I now wonder if they were forced to change the water half way through. Our front room was only used at Christmas or when extra special visitors came such as a visiting priest and it was always very cold. For years it served instead of a refrigerator as far as food storage was concerned. Jellies could be set in a mere hour and the butter always remained firm, the milk cold, and leftover meat could be safely left for days. It, and both the bedrooms above each had a fireplace. A fire was always laid in the front room `in case’, but the grates upstairs were permanently empty, the only time they came close to a fire was when someone was ill. I can recall one in the back bedroom when I was four years old and had pneumonia and certainly a cheerful blaze in the front bedroom seven years later a day or two before my father died. The lighting was by gas and little lamps stuck out from the walls of each room, close to the chimney piece, the scullery and attic having no `laid on light’ at all. The gas and electricity was metered and fed with shilling pieces into the meter in the coal cellar. If the gas `ran out’ and you were short of the correct coins then you found a candle, relied on the light of the range fire or sat in the dark. I loved the soft yellowness of the gaslight in winter, and shivered at the exciting shadows it cast across the walls. Electricity on the other hand, burst forth and lit up every corner of each room, even the scullery, and it seemed to me to lack magic. Quite the most inconvenient thing about the house in York Road was the convenience itself, situated as it was in the yard at the back beyond the scullery. Our `lavvy’ had spiders in all corners and of course no light. There was a candle in the corner for those intending to spend more than a minute or so late at night. Torn up newspapers on a length of string hung on a nail on the wall and when they ran out it was either a case of remembering to take a piece with you or suffering the indignity of calling for help. Adjacent to the lavatory, high on the wall, was a meat safe with a mesh door. The only other structure of any significance in our yard throughout my childhood years was the Anderson shelter which later became a shed where my father kept his motorbike. I now recall these details of 28 York Road with melancholy affection but when I lived there I was humiliated and ashamed of each and every aspect of the place longing as I did to escape into the security and protection of the middle classes.
Monday, 16 January 2017
One Sunday afternoon a black taxi swung around the corner into York Road, scattering the big, rough boys like John Dyke and his cronies who were playing marbles in the gutter. The boys ran beside the car as it slowed and finally stopped outside our door, right in front of me sitting sedately on the doorstep reading a book, which was just about allowed by my mother on Sundays during her bouts of pursuing upward social mobility. There was to be `no racing the streets of a Sunday just like it was any old day of the week’. A car coming to our house? Surely not! Out of the taxi stepped three plump women in fur coats, impossibly high heels, and small velour hats each adorned with a feather and a veil. Two were old like my mother and the fattest one was very old like my grandmother. They shrieked at each other in a foreign language as the driver was paid dramatically, with a white five pound note, the first I had ever seen and much fuss was made about the change being handed over in notes. Then they checked the numbers on the doors either side of our house, now surrounded by the interested group of boys who had somehow been joined by a couple of mothers who tried to look nonchalant without much success. I kept my eyes as far as possible on The Further Adventures Of Worzel Gummidge whilst paying great attention to their shoes. A pair of puffy ankles in silk stockings wobbled towards me and I was tapped smartly on the head with a hand laden down with rings. Her nails were an unseemly length and colour for her age. My Nan never grew her nails and my mother’s were bitten to the bone. `And you must be dear little Jean….’ My name came out all wrong from her mouth and sounded more like John. A wonderful aroma pervaded the air around her; this old lady was so impossibly glamorous I was struck dumb and could only nod but by that time my mother had appeared on the doorstep behind me with `….I think you must have come to the wrong place – who are you looking for?’ They told her they were looking for `dear Bernard’ and as Nellie tried to narrow the door space, my father also appeared and then all three of them threw themselves forward and covered him with kisses. I had never seen such a public display of emotion and could only gawp, my mouth open. Later my mother was to describe this scene as disgusting and maintain that their behaviour `turned her stomach’ but at the time she, like me, simply stood and stared. By this time the three women were inside our front room, now suddenly made smaller by the sheer volume of their combined furs and the pervasive fragrance emanating from them was stronger than ever. Inside our house! Strangers simply did not come inside our house. Only family and the occasional close acquaintance were ever allowed over the threshold. Strangers were kept firmly on the doorstep but somehow or other these three alien women – foreigners to boot – were actually inside our front room, the older one by now had settled herself on the arm of the sofa with a kind of thud, her fur coat opening at the front to reveal a shiny red frock that seemed to me so beautiful it could have been a bridesmaid’s outfit made for a very stylish wedding. At some stage in the next few minutes my mother ushered me upstairs, pulled my grey skirt and pullover off me and out of the wardrobe came the lemon cotton summer dress recently bought at Gravesend Market that was supposed to be saved for going to church and for visiting. I was hastily re-dressed – clean white socks, hair brushed. She fluffed up her own hair, dabbed some Velouty for Beauty on her cheeks and pushed me downstairs again. The three women were still in the front room, now all seated with coats off, hats still on, the younger two also garbed in bright silk and adorned with strings of glittering beads. They perched on our drab and dreary 1930s three piece suite with easy self assurance like a clutch of exotic birds, filling the room with an unfamiliar thrill of excitement. I began to observe them with growing enthusiasm, already rehearsing the stories I was going to tell the girls at school about their glamorous lives. My father had recovered his composure and was talking animatedly. My mother’s mouth was set at a grim angle. One of the younger women hugged me and told me I was a `beautiful little girl’ and greatly heartened by this I asked her if she thought my new dress was pretty and added that I was wearing it because she was a very special visitor. My mother pinched my thigh painfully as I said this and told me to speak when I was spoken to and not to interrupt grown-up conversation. The woman who my father said was my new Aunt Philomena, told me that my dress was very lovely and she was humbled that I should wear it in her honour, and that of her sister (my new Aunt Mariella) and her mother who was not an aunt but a Madame Something Very Foreign. I became much more chatty at this stage and told my new Aunts that they were wearing the most beautiful dresses I had ever seen (except at weddings) and they must have come from very expensive shops and they all laughed and again said how truly sweet and clever I was. My mother then called me into the scullery to `help’ her make the tea and hissed: `…you just button your lip for once or I’ll give you what for after they’ve gone!’ So I reluctantly buttoned my lip and with very bad grace because there were so many questions I wanted to ask. Who were these extraordinary women and how could it be that they knew my father so well? Just how did he get to be on such obviously good terms with foreigners who dressed in silks and furs and paid their bills with five pound notes? Later in the afternoon I was sent across to Troke’s Corner Shop because they were the only people for miles around with a telephone, to ask them to telephone for a taxi to take us all into Gravesend to the Nelson Hotel where they were staying and where we were all going to have a cooked tea! Only my brother was to be left behind, with Mr. and Mrs. Bessant next door. The Trokes were very interested. Who are the three ladies? How do they know your Dad? Are they friends of your Mum as well or just your Dad? Did they write and tell you they were coming to visit or was it a lovely surprise? I was thrilled to provide information that was later to incense my mother and truly make her `blood boil’. `The three ladies come from a country called Greece and they’re my new aunts.. They met my Daddy during the war. They’re just Daddy’s friends – not Mummy’s. Their visit is a lovely surprise!’ For the very first time in my life I rode in a motor car. A huge black shiny taxi that had to make two trips to get us all to the hotel. The old lady with many dramatic gestures insisted on paying for it. The excitement mounted as we sat in the hotel lobby whilst one of the new aunts negotiated a table in the restaurant for us all and a chair with a booster cushion for me. My mother, by now changed into her Sunday best black taffeta dress, also worn for funerals, her black Cuban heeled shoes and wearing crystal beads, looked more and more miserable. My father in his demob suit looked somewhat overconfident and strutted a little saying he had heard the food at the Nelson was extremely good to which she responded in a loud stage whisper that she wasn’t hungry and anyway her stomach was churning and she wouldn’t be able to keep a thing down so to tell them not to waste their money on her. The restaurant was quite the most dazzling place I had ever been inside with tapestry wallpaper and glass chandeliers and a very sombre atmosphere. The narrow tables were covered in starched linen cloths and each place was set with a considerable amount of heavy silverware. There were napkins rolled up and secured with silver bracelets. I had never seen such glamour before and I was entranced. I was allowed to choose what I was going to eat and was urged to choose chicken because it was very special and only normally eaten at Christmas time. Then I ate something called a Peach Melba which was a tall glass filled with tinned peaches and ice cream covered in a delicious jam sauce. A bottle of wine somehow appeared on the table which the foreign women shared. My mother of course only drank lemonade and my father ordered beer. Poor Nellie looked more uncomfortable than ever and sat mostly in silence eating very little. After a while the new aunts stopped trying to draw her into the conversation and instead reminisced with my father about things that had happened during the war when he had apparently, been great friends with them. Sometimes they spoke in their own language – and sometimes even my father spoke some of this strange language! They began to bring photographs out of their lizard skin handbags and these were scrutinised with care over cups of Nescafe coffee. There was a lot of laughter and as it grew dark and the evening drew to a close, there was also a great deal of kissing and hugging and tears from the younger women. We did not go home in a taxi. We waited for the 496 bus and while we were waiting it began to rain a soft, seeping drizzle that relentlessly soaked through our Sunday best clothing. My mother kept up a non stop diatribe in a low voice, waiting at the bus stop, on the bus, on the walk down Springhead Road, all the way home. `I never thought I would live to witness the day you would show me up like that. Shown up I was in front of the `ole street, in front of all me neighbours. I’ll never be able to `old me `ead up again after wot you’ve done. Fancy `aving to put up with yer `usband’s fancy pieces coming and knocking on me door – and on a SUNDAY if yer don’t mind! And not just one of them – three fancy pieces- THREE! – three tarts all dolled up in fur coats and silk stockings. And the way they carry on! All this kissing and cuddling in front of people! `ow `ave they bin brought up that’s wot I’d like to know. You’d catch things from trollops like that. And the old girl as well – sixty if she’s a day and all dolled up like a spring chicken.. I’ve never seen the like of it in all my born days. And on a SUNDAY! I can’t get over the nerve of them – coming into my `ouse, stepping on all me mats, without so much as a please or thank you. Coming into me front room and sitting on all me chairs in their fur coats and their silk stockings and their painted fingers!’ After the visit of trio who came to be known as The Greeks and who never visited again, the relationship between my parents got much worse, the arguments and insults more frequent, my mother’s tears more or less constant. She never had to be reminded to hate the Greeks and as the months passed I often thought about the strange new aunts in their bright shiny frocks, their high heeled shoes and the heady, piquancy that wafted about them, a fragrance tantalisingly reminiscent of both bluebell woods after a violent rainstorm and heavily spiced bread pudding fresh from the oven. The neighbours asked me about them: Old Mrs. Bessant next door – `Has your Dad heard any more from those Greek friends of his dearie?` Mrs. Bedford from across the road – `When are your foreign relatives coming to visit again?` Mrs. Troke from the corner shop – `Has your mum had any news from those friends of your Dad?` And to each one of them I replied: `We get letters from them every week and next summer I’ll be going all the way to Greece for a holiday at their big house.` Whether they did send letters or not I cannot recall but I do know that my mother deftly steamed open a fair amount of mail before resealing it and placing it in front of the mantelpiece clock. Sometimes my parents did not speak to each other for days and my father would come back from his shift to be greeted with a vacuum of quiet. His dinner would be placed before him, eaten quickly, then he would wash and change and disappear `off for a walk’ and he stopped taking me, or even the dog, with him.
Saturday, 14 January 2017
There was a time decades ago when, young, impressionable and much in love, I sat enthralled at the feet of one Vidar L’Estrange and listened attentively to his many informative stories some of which concerned how he faced life as an eighteen year old newcomer from Germany after the war intent upon studying first English and then perhaps medicine. At least half of his edifying accounts involved episodes he thought I would find fascinating that occurred in his family such as how his mother’s first husband had regrettably died on the honeymoon and what led to his paternal grandmother to go to Paris to become a follower of nineteenth century magician Eliphas Levi. Others were directly personal accounts - how he starved himself out of the German Army the previous year or how he reacted to his initial introduction to the quintessential English Pub. Apparently Pubs as the English know them certainly did not exist in Germany in the nineteen thirties, forties and fifties. He had been in South East London for one week only and under strict instructions from his mother to always behave well, when the motherly Mrs Morrison with whom he boarded in Sunnydene Crescent said that her husband and oldest son would be visiting the local Pub after tea and added that she thought her young boarder might like to accompany them. Vidar’s English was still not entirely fluent and so he asked for clarification as to what exactly the `local Pub’ was. She said it was a Public House and was called The Star Tavern. Her Boarder was confused and not a little shocked at this further information and even more so upon hearing that the men in the family `usually visited the Public House on a Friday and Saturday evening after tea’. However, the men were by this time bundling themselves into their coats and caps and waiting politely for him so he felt he could do nothing else but join them. He felt compelled to tell them, however, that he would wait outside the establishment rather than go in with them. Mr. Morrison said, `Not even one drink then?’ but Vidar was firm and said he would rather not and was happy to simply wait. The reason for his reluctance to join them inside was not because he was completely averse to alcohol but rather because the term `Public House’ in direct German translation became `The Brothel’ and the fact that these Londoners so casually visited their local bordello on Friday and Saturday evenings after tea was immensely shocking to him. Furthermore, that there seemed to be such establishments conveniently placed on every corner scandalized him and he wondered how the decadent British could possibly have won the war. He stood outside and peered fearfully through the window at the bar where now more than a dozen men between the ages of twenty and seventy stood and ordered pints of beer. He imagined this would be to occupy them while they waited their turn and marveled at their nonchalant attitude, their casual banter, their jokes and their laughter. This could never happen in the suburbs of Berlin or Munich even under the worst excesses of Adolf Hitler. The crowd at the bar grew thicker but every few minutes one of the customers would leave his pint unattended and head up the stairs in the corner of the room where an arrow pointed the way to the WC which the watchful Vidar decided was something to do with where the wantonly degenerate and now very busy woman could be found in some room above and her services engaged. He noted that even the septuagenarians headed up the stairs and that their absence from the bar was longer than that of the younger men which he felt from his so far brief encounter with medicine, was only to be expected. To his continuing horror even though he had fully expected it, his landlady’s husband and son also mounted those stairs when their turn came. Later when they emerged from the Public House into the growing darkness of South East London they seemed to have not a hint of shame about them. Mr Morrison even slapped him on the back heartily and said that maybe next week Vidar would join them inside The Star Tavern rather than waiting without in the cold. And Vidar for politeness sake said perhaps he would but felt compelled to add that he would simply stay downstairs in the bar and drink a pint of beer. Mr Morrison nodded but looked confused so Vidar told him firmly, `I will not be going upstairs to the WC,’ then added by way of explanation, ` because my mother would be very unhappy if I did so.’ Years later when he told this story, Vidar was still discomfited by this youthful blunder with regard to the very English habit of regular visits to the Pub and in all the years of my devotion to him, never all that keen to patronize them.
Monday, 9 January 2017
In the 1940s the extended Constant family seemed to be involved in a great deal more agricultural activities than those around us. Topics of conversation between my various aunts for much of the time when they were not actually vilifying each other or the neighbours seemed to revolve around peas, beans, potatoes, fruit - and of course hops. When my grandmother and aunts were busily preoccupied with working the fields closer to Crayford and Dartford, we often went pea-picking with Aunt Lou and Cousin Connie who were from my father’s side of the family and for some reason treated with suspicion by the Constants. As an eight year old I thought this might be because she had a large family of rather aggressive boys who had all passed the Eleven Plus and actually been allowed to go to Grammar School never mind the cost of the uniform. This fact was truly shocking to Old Nan, my maternal grandmother. I liked Connie but I was rather surprised to find that whilst I was simply allowed to play all day in the pea fields, she was required to do almost as many hours picking as her mother and thus she turned out to be not much fun at all. In Northfleet at that time, there were those who did and those who did not do field work and the latter group definitely thought themselves a cut above the former. We, of course seemed to do as much as was available, getting up on what were to be bitterly cold mornings whilst it was still dark and riding to the farms on the back of a lorry. Decades later I fully appreciate that this was a world my mother understood and was not intimidated by whereas the kind of work sought by the more traditional, decent working class caused her to feel overawed and apprehensive because she failed to understand the structures involved. In the middle of a pea field my mother felt completely at home. All day long she would gather vegetables and deliver them into sacks to be weighed, and at the end of each day collect perhaps five or six shillings. There was no lorry available for the home journey so we had to walk the several miles back to York Road and this she did willingly, almost happily, on the hottest days even stopping off at Simms’ corner shop to buy an unexpected treat in the form of a new fangled Ice Lolly with a cream centre. She liked pea picking more than many of the similar possibilities because once you pulled a nicely vast heap of bines from the ground, you could sit in comfort and pick them into the bucket at your side, to be transferred into the sacks. Beans on the other hand were `back breaking’ and potatoes even more so. I greatly looked forward to fruit picking, particularly soft fruits like strawberries and raspberries, for obvious reasons. I liked cherries best of all and looked forward to the short season with hard to suppress excitement. Sadly it seemed that once the men were back from the war they seemed to take over much of the cherry picking once more and my greatly hated Cousin George told me with enormous satisfaction that it was because men were more reliable in trees, being better on ladders. To demonstrate this he then climbed halfway up the apple tree outside the kitchen window with me in hot pursuit. It was on this afternoon of the cherry argument that somehow or other George was pushed from the tree and broke his collar bone but that is really beside the point. Despite my enduring love of and loyalty to the Kentish cherry, all fruits and vegetables paled into insignificance alongside the annual hop picking event and it mattered little that the hops themselves were not traditionally consumed until they had been turned into beer. In early May we would make a trip to the gardens to appropriate quantities of young hop shoots. This was done surreptitiously, arriving just before dusk when the farm workers would be unlikely to be around. The young hops would be soaked overnight in salt water and next day drained and simmered until tender then eaten with salt, pepper and a lump of butter. They tasted a little like asparagus. During the stringing season we, with Old Nan accompanied by Little Violet took a train trip or sometimes several buses, to Mereworth to `our’ farm to observe the strangest of rural crafts for an afternoon. 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 alleys of hops deftly stringing the plants overhead. The stilt walkers like circus performers, impressive as they made their measured progress along the poles, exhibiting the outlandish and bizarre dexterity needed to train the plants’ next stage of growth. In late August the excitement mounted because in early September the hops would be 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 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 and me and my brother – all could be found boarding the pickers’ train from Maidstone station for the 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. It was through the efforts of such bodies as the Society for Conveyance and Improved Lodging of Hop 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 abandoned them and simply went behind the nearest bush. The farm with the best facilities was reputed 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 and drunkenness and swearing were reported to the manager who recorded the misdeeds in a black book. Three misdemeanours and you were expelled. This would clearly not have suited Old Nan. I no longer remember the name of `our’ farm but the memories surrounding the six weeks of rural freedom are still 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. 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 pay was kept back each week and paid as a lump sum at the end of September. Sometimes only tokens were distributed during the period of picking but 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 the children would be sent off to purchase bottles of beer from the off licence and these were liberally consumed in the cookhouse after dinner. 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 singing of `Nellie Dean’, `My Old Dutch’ and `Waiting At the Church’ long into the night. But it was up at five the next morning when the picking began again and being a child did not automatically exclude you from the hard work; we were all expected to stand at the bin and pick despite the hop plant’s soporific effects. However, my mother and aunts were agreeable to letting us finish our contribution at lunchtime each day when the only child still required to continue working, much like cousin Connie of the peas, was Little Violet because my grandmother had different standards and consequently poor Little Violet 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 nuts 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. Liquorice Wood just looked like slivers of kindling but did in fact taste surprisingly of liquorice. It could not be swallowed and had to be spat out once the flavour had disappeared. Locust Beans were rather like hard, dried figs but I later found out that the thousands of little seeds inside were insect eggs of some kind and from time to time they were crawling with little white grubs. I ate them nevertheless. As the picking season progressed, more and more signs would appear outside pubs and businesses - `No Hoppers, No Gypsies’, at which time 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 - `hey darling where’s yer ‘orse’ – as she appeared in them each morning and I was filled with admiration. The story of my mother’s unconventional entry into the world was retold each year by my grandmother, and we all became familiar with the details. `Born right ‘ere in this very place my Nellie was – come early she did and oh she was a tiny little thing, no bigger than a milk jug. We wrapped ‘er up in a poke and I ‘ad to stop picking the rest of that day. I went back picking the next day like – and she came with me and lay in the bin all day nice and comfy on all them ‘ops’. And at this stage Nan, not generally known for her sentiment, could actually be seen to have a tear or two in her eyes. Tears or not there could be no doubting that she was never happier than in the hop gardens with her family all around her listening to 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 who simply maintained they were jealous and advised us to Bugger Them! Once or twice fights broke out and on one scandalous occasion Old Nan tore the hooped ear ring out of a woman’s ear, tearing the ear lobe so 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 then warned Nan that she could find herself charged if she wasn’t careful. The whispering and rumour that swept through the pickers on this occasion was astonishing and managed to subdue my belligerent grandmother for several hours. It was in the hop gardens I first began to recognise that there was something distinctly different about our family.. 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 even 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. By the age of ten I think I completely understood what I viewed as this regrettable truth about the family. These days I simply find it delightfully colourful!
Thursday, 5 January 2017
My mother had for reasons best known to herself, decided I should join a local Brownie Pack when I was eight. She seemed to think there would be social advantages such as meeting and possibly becoming friendly with, a nicer class of girl than those living at the lower end of York Road, Northfleet. When I expressed a certain amount of dread, after all the whole idea sounded suspiciously like a weekly dose of compulsory team games and I was well aware from several years of school that I was not possessed of much team spirit, she added that all my Crayford cousins were currently enthusiastic Brownies. While I was reflecting that under normal circumstances she would not regard the cousins as being in any way helpful for social mobility, she assured me that I would love it once I got used to it. I had even more serious doubts when I saw her making the obligatory uniform from an offcut of fabric, quite the wrong shade of brown, purchased from a stall in Gravesend Market. My heart sank deeper as I contemplated the remarks that would unquestionably be made by my co-Brownies regarding colour blindness, all of them acceptably attired in uniforms purchased from Danby’s, with epaulettes and leather belts. She could never quite get the hang of epaulettes and the cost of a leather belt put it into the `out of the question’ category. I was right of course but following a most disagreeable and spiteful three weeks I solved the problem by simply not attending these intolerable every Tuesday after school sessions. Instead I hit upon the brilliant idea of taking Tuesday evening bus rides with the subs money. It was on one of these absconding Tuesdays that I boarded the 498 bus from the stop outside the Doctor’s surgery in London Road towards the Station and came face to face with my father who had presumably boarded in Gravesend. In fact I nearly tripped over his feet as we greeted each other somewhat uneasily. To my surprise he did not ask me why I was travelling in the opposite direction to that of the Brownie Pack Meeting, neither did he get off the bus at The Hill and head down Springhead Road towards home but instead stayed on chatting with the bus conductress whom he seemed to know well and addressed as `Sadie’. I studied her smart blue jacket , admiring the perfectly positioned epaulettes that my mother was simply not able to master no matter how hard she tried. A powerful woman in sole charge of the interior of the 498 route from Gravesend to Crayford. A woman in a uniform what’s more! She looked me up and down curiously, `Is this your girl then Bern?’ `Yes, this is my Jean – say hello to your Aunt Sadie Jean,’ He looked quite dapper and definitely pleased with himself, in his demob suit, a white silk scarf casually draped around his neck. I felt a deep unease; there was something quite wrong about the way they spoke to each other. I held out my bus fare and she shook her head. She was a small, slim woman with a tightly nipped in waist and a mop of unruly hair that was an improbable shade of red. She wore strappy sandals with her clippy’s uniform and her toenails were as vividly red as her hair. Instead of the narrow skirt normally worn by women on the buses she wore slacks. She had small gold studs in her ears and as she spoke I could see the occasional flash of gold in her mouth. She swayed up and down the bus taking a fare or two and my father’s eyes followed her progress with undisguised admiration and then she swayed back to where he sat on the treble seat at the end of the bus. She chatted to him in an animated and familiar way and both of them laughed far too much. From time to time she pushed his shoulder playfully and told him he made her split her sides. I sat opposite him and stared at this unfamiliar Aunt Sadie. After her initial appraisal she took little notice of me, her attention was primarily upon him. Occasionally as she leaned forward to allow a newly boarding passenger to pass up the bus, her knee pressed against his just a fraction too long for the contact to be accidental. I remained on the bus all through the three stops to Swanscombe, then two more to Greenhithe, one more to Stone – and I wondered where he was going. They began to speak together in low voices, her head bent forward, red tendrils of hair brushing against his forehead and then quite suddenly he decided to alight at the stop after Stone village. I got off with him and we crossed the road and stood in silence waiting for the bus back towards Northfleet Hill. `Thought you were going to Brownies tonight,’ he said at last. I shrugged, said nothing for a while then asked, `Does Mummy know Aunt Sadie?’ He was silent too then asked in a vague voice,`Does she know who?’ I spoke louder, slightly aggressive now, `Aunt Sadie – the clippie – does Mummy know her?’ He studied the timetable. It was a request stop and almost at once a bus appeared out of the early evening Stone Village mist. He signalled it far too vigorously. `Yes – your mother knows her,’ he told me as we both got on. `Does Mummy like her?’ His voice became sharper, `What kind of question is that?’ and he sat a little straighter and looked intently out of the window into the darkening evening seemingly engrossed in the river traffic heading towards the Pool of London. I did not find this sudden keen interest in the pilot boats and cargo vessels totally convincing. I thought he was waiting to see what I would say next so I said nothing and neither did he. The almost empty bus rumbled steadily along the high London Road above the quarries, through the village of Greenhithe, towards Swanscombe. The waterside buildings below became increasingly shrouded and obscured by dark shadows and one after another the little yellow lights were switched on inside the houses and studded the growing darkness. After we left the Swanscombe request stop I decided to speak. `I’m not going to go to Brownies any more,’ He sounded resigned and tired when he asked me why not. `I don’t like it and the other girls are snobs. One of them said my legs were dirty.’ He turned now and looked at me dispassionately, `Maybe it’s just not your cup of tea.’ I nodded, `And my legs are not dirty.’ He glanced at my clean legs and agreed, `Your legs are quite clean – I’ll tell your Mother you don’t want to go anymore.’ We both stared out into the rapidly darkening night. `What if she says I’ve got to go because of her specially making that uniform?’ He said I should not worry about that because he would deal with it. And he did so. Next day my mother hung the offending wrong shade of brown uniform into the back of the wardrobe. I watched in some relief and said, `Being a Brownie just wasn’t my cup of tea.’ She looked at me without comment. The subject of Brownies was not brought up again.
Sunday, 1 January 2017
Peggy likes long trans-globe chats at times when the cost is so negligible per two hour slot it barely demands a mention. She commented, not for the first time that I seemed to `hang out’ on line with some creepy people at times. I told her that not all of them were all that creepy and she said maybe she had meant sinister which when you think about it is actually worse. `Anyhow,’ she added, `I’m glad you’ve dumped them, especially the one who sees conspiracy in every corner.’ I said that to be fair I didn’t dump them – they dumped me and then she wanted to know why but I actually couldn’t think of a reason that made much sense so offered lamely that maybe I had been considered just as sinister, for clearly doubting so many of the more extreme allegations. `Not all Cabinet Ministers can be clandestine paedophiles or money launderers after all and I simply cannot believe that they are so concerned for each other’s welfare that they cover up crimes willy nilly for each other – in fact such loyalty is rare and I’m certain is not rife in the Halls of Power…..,’ I began to warm to my theme but she had clearly lost interest which was annoying because I had a great deal more to add on the topic. Instead I explained that some people were not creepy at all but very informative and I had learned a lot about Pike River from one on line friend. But Peggy knows little of Pike River and wanted to talk about buildings being torn down overnight, Wombwell Hall and The Battle of Britain Pub in particular. She reminded me that she had briefly been a Hall student a year or two after me before she was unceremoniously uprooted to Yorkshire with her family and deposited in a more modern and rather boring Technical School environment. The Hall had been far more to her liking and she loved the old kitchens just as much as I had. She now waxed lyrical about the beauty of the sweeping staircase. She even said that Downton Abbey reminded her of the place though Downton was obviously far more exclusive and upmarket and was never in danger of becoming a Girls’Technical School. We talked about the school staff and both agreed that the Headmistress, Miss Fuller, seemed to be aligning herself toward the male gender rather than the female with her severely cut tweed suits and her then most unfashionably short hair. Peggy recalled both Miss Hart and Miss K Smith with as much affection as I did. Miss Hart because she taught hockey, at which Peggy excelled and Miss K Smith because she had introduced her to the Shakespeare sonnets and taken a group of enthusiasts to the Old Vic. `Teachers were allowed to be far more eccentric in those days,’ she said, `The problem with today is that we fall over backwards to view even a trace of eccentricity as completely normal. You have to be almost deviant to be classified as an eccentric in this day and age.’ All things considered that is completely true and I felt compelled to say so which somehow or other brought us abruptly back to conspiracy theorists and whether or not they could be considered irrational. Peggy was cagey because we both knew we harboured favourite areas of intrigue – Princess Diana’s death for one and Peggy was even doubtful that there was ever a Moon landing though I can’t say I agree with her there. `Perhaps it has to do with faith in the background research…..’ I said at last, `When people simply claim they have absolute proof of the most astonishing contentions yet never produce the proof you cannot help but begin to doubt them.’ She agreed and as the line was becoming indistinct it was good to end the conversation at a point where we were in harmony.