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


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.