Tuesday, 11 December 2007

While you wait ... !

I am posting a biographical slideshow here in order to offer something to those of you who pop back to see if I'm still asleep! I do plan to get back to the life story one day, but somehow there always seems to be something else more pressing to get on with.

Wednesday, 25 July 2007

The effects of war at home 2

We had a good healthy diet on the whole, as we produced our own fresh fruit and vegetables, as well as eggs. My mother taught herself to look after hens, and then added geese to the flock as well, which meant we sometimes had a goose for our Christmas dinner - a richer meat than turkey. I remember that the feeding of the hens and geese required the saving of all food waste to be boiled up as 'swill', a foul-smelling concoction which drove us out of doors when it was cooking on the stove!

A goose egg with hens' eggs

[Couldn't find a picture of pig swill anywhere!]

However, as a result of being at a vegetarian school, my brother and I had vegetarian ration books. To begin with we were able to change these in the holidays so that we could get meat, but eventually the government discontinued the practice, and we had to manage. Our parents gallantly shared their tiny meat ration with us, but our veggie ration books gave us access to additional cheese and eggs, and more in the way of nuts and dried fruit than was available to eveybody. I remember too a delicious cashew nut butter known as Nutter, which made a really tasty spread. As most women had to do, unless they were prepared to buy on the black market, my mother became expert at contriving nourishing meals out of not very much.

A typical weekly ration for one - enough cholesterol there for a week for me nowadays, even without the black pudding which I don't fancy!

A rather posh neighbour of ours kept a Jersey cow on her lawn for a time, as her ‘contribution’ to the war. She kindly offered to leave out two glasses of rich creamy milk every day, in her lovely cool dairy, and my brother and I were expected to walk down the hill and back again to take advantage of this extra nourishment. I remember it being a rather boring obligation which we did not appreciate! However, it did not last long, as our neighbour was soon notified that all the product from her cow which was surplus to her own household’s needs, was expected to be handed over to the Milk Marketing Board for fair distribution – she was not supposed to give it away to friends!

I think the worst thing I suffered personally as a teenager, as a result of the war, was the clothes I sometimes had to wear made over from my mother’s by a local dressmaker. I could tell that they were not stylish and they embarrased me. Only a few years ago I was using up a set of dusters which my mother had bought with a view to turning them into some sort of garment. Thank goodness that project was never realised! Incidentally, I still have left one or two of the black satinised cotton curtains we used to black out our windows. Over the years these have been made up into a variety of fancy dress costumes for school plays and local amateur dramatics.

We all suffered as a family for a while, when we gave houseroom to my father’s sister from London, together with some other London relatives. This was extremely tough for my mother, with two other women in her kitchen, and she became very stressed and tearful. The other family lived in a different way from us, and I can remember our horror on one occasion when they had prepared a cauliflower cheese for our supper, and it had come to table absolutely full of aphis which had not been washed out before cooking. I am afraid we made a bad hand of having evacuees in the house, even family, and I feel a bit ashamed when I think of all those other families who had no choice about taking in strangers.

The effects of war at home 1

As the years of my senior schooling slipped happily by in Letchworth, I was living an equally happy home life in Worcestershire during the school holidays. Our parents seemed to settle in well to living in the country, and so did my brother and I. Our father was relaxed and at ease again, working on the land, away from the city and the stress of trying to sell cars, and our mother soon set to work to learn how to live the life of a countrywoman, and to make a place for herself in the village community.

My father picking apples

We had not known the village prior to the war, as we arrived only in the July before war was declared in September. Village life was pretty simple then in any case. I have already written that we had neither mains electricity, water or sewage. I think we had a car in the early weeks of the war, although later it had to be taken off the road, as petrol was rationed, and used for essential purposes only. As I recall, apart from tradesmen who had to make deliveries, cars were mostly owned by the better off in those days, with two-car families being a rare occurrence. So people walked to where they had to go: to their work, to the shops, to school, to the pub, and to church.

The village had only three shops, as I remember: a baker, a butcher and a post office and general store. Fortunately we had our milk delivered; we lived next door to a farm and the milk arrived in a churn, still warm, and often with little black floaters in it, as it was not treated in any way at that time. It was ladled out into our own jug or milk can which we left on the doorstep.

The bulk of our shopping had to be done in the local town of Worcester which was seven miles away. By the time the war was well under way, the local bus service to the town was down to once a fortnight. It was a 10-15 minute walk downhill from our house to the bus stop, but probably half an hour up hill again, to get home with heavy bags loaded with tinned goods, dry goods, vegetables, clothes - everything that was needed for the next two weeks of living.

But once my father had the smallholding working well, with fruit and vegetables to take to market, as well as the eggs from the hens kept by my mother, it was necessary to have some form of transport to get the produce into the town. For a while we ran a pony and trap, which we parked in the car park alongside whatever cars were there. The first pony we bought turned out to have been doped by the crooked dealer, and became unmanageable as soon as we got him home. The second buy, an amiable little Welsh pony called Mick, turned out fine, and my brother and I were able to ride him as well.

My brother and I with Mick the pony

I remember that on our shopping expeditions to the town we used to lunch at the British Restaurant. This was a sort of communal kitchen set up in schools and church halls by local authorities on a non-profit-making basis, where one could get a good wholesome meal for about 1/6d (8p), without handing over food coupons. I remember too that in those days of shortages, teas and coffees in cafes and restaurants tended to be served with one lump of sugar for each person, and if one did not take sugar in one's tea, one put the lump quickly into one’s pocket, and took it home for use in cooking, hopefully collecting those of other non-sugar-takers too!

Wednesday, 20 June 2007

The end of schooling

The school floodlit on VE night
My schooling ended as the war ended, in the summer of 1945. The school community celebrated the end of war in Europe in May with a two-day holiday. On the first day there were picnic parties, then later a gigantic bonfire, home-made fireworks, dancing round the blaze with linked arms, and a sing-song, while we waited for midnight and the official moment when peace would begin. The following day no one had to get up for breakfast, and buffet meals were served on the school field. Most of us passed the day in outdoor activities, or simply idled the time away. In the evening there was dancing again, ending with Auld Lang Syne and three cheers for the head teachers. Throughout the celebrations the Senior School House, Arundale, was the object of an unforgettable piece of floodlighting devised by senior boy electricians. [I am indebted for the details of this account to Reginald Snell, whose book “St Christopher School 1915-1975” has done much to remind me of why I was so happy during my senior school years.]

After this delightful break I must have had to turn immediately to revision for my final exams. I recall the sweltering agony of writing them in a suffocating hall during a heatwave summer. I remember too how, if we had two exams in a morning, we would be given handfuls of nuts and raisins during the break to keep up our energy levels. We didn’t have a tuck shops or machines in the school, and there would not have been time to sneak out to the local corner shop for forbidden refreshments .

On the whole I had found learning easy at St Christopher, except for Science, which I did not understand, and History which bored me. I was lucky to have first class teachers in all my favourite subjects: English, French, Spanish, and Biology. Even in Maths I ended up with a teacher who somehow managed to make sense of it for me, so that I was able, to my own astonishment (and probably to his), to get a credit in my School Certificate Exam (GCSE equivalent in the UK). After that I was able, thankfully, to drop the subject.
I was obliged however to have special tuition in Latin, another bugbear, as I needed the subject for the Arts Degree I was contemplating. In this too I just managed to reach the required level. I went on to take the Higher School Certificate (A levels), in English, French and Spanish, gaining a distinction in French. My French and Spanish teacher, Molly Twemlow, was particularly brilliant at French pronunciation, and in her dictations was able to make a clearly audible distinction between an ‘é’ and an ‘ée’ ending. The early training I received in that language has given me one of the greatest sources of pleasure of my life.
But I recall most especially my English Teacher, Miss Maxwell. I remember her as a rather severe lady, of the kind one expects to find in all-girl schools, but who stood out somewhat from the majority of more relaxed-looking teachers at St Chris. She was nicknamed ‘Hetty’, and I am sure she knew that, although she was the one teacher we did not call by her nickname to her face. She could be stern and sharply disciplinary. I remember her calling me to account for whistling in the school corridors – (I whistled a great deal in those days, having no singing voice and no concept of being ladylike!) But how she could teach! She loved her subject and I believe she loved us too, because we wanted to learn. And as there were only three of us taking this particular group of subjects, our lessons were more like personal tutorials. After our final exams, Hetty took the trouble to send us each a postcard with our results, as soon as she knew them, in advance of our receiving the official notification.
Of course there had been discussions about what I should do next in my life. I was good at languages and should have gone with that. But I did not want to teach or do language research, which seemed to be all that would be open to me. Nobody seemed to think of the role of interpreter – at that time during the war, I don’t suppose such training was available. Had it been, I believe that is the direction I should have taken. But at 16 I had the idea that I wanted to serve the community, and it was agreed between my teachers, my parents and myself that I should aim for a Sociology Degree at The London School of Economics, or possibly a Degree in Social Sciences. So this was my plan as I left St Christopher for the last time as a student, though I would return there from time to time as an Old Scholar.

The Lower Sixth [I'm 2nd from L at the back]

The Upper and Lower Sixth forms 1944

Boarding school - the effects of war

On the whole the war years made little impact on me. None of my relatives was of an age to join the armed services, and there were no casualities of any sort. As for me, I was cocooned in the country, both at home where we lived in a small country village, and at my boarding school right on the edge of a garden city. There were air raid warnings, however, and bombs fall occasionally in the area. Some trenches were dug at the far end of the school field, and equipped with electric light and lavatories. These were used by the seniors for a short while but were soon abandoned in favour of the indoor shelters the other boarding houses were using. These consisted of a series of tubular steel half circles like toast-racks, put up in downstairs rooms. I presume these would have held off falling masonry.

During some of the worst bombing attacks on London, instead of travelling from Worcester to school at Letchworth, via Paddington and Kings Cross, my brother and I were dispatched via Oxford and Reading, a long and dreary route without the benefit of our school mates as company on the train. Instead of being met and transported across London by my father’s sister, my parents arranged for an organisation called Universal Aunts to get us from train to train at the intermediary stops. They are still in existence, and still performing the role of proxy parents (among many others) all these years later. They have been going since 1921, and I have taken the liberty of reproducing one of their archive pictures of ‘Meeting the train’.

I have written before of the vegetarian diet at our boarding school. At the start of the war meat dinners were on offer twice a week for those children whose parents wanted them to have meat. But these were soon abandoned, due to the difficulties of buying both meat and vegetarian food with ration books. Although I thrived on the vegetarian diet, and thought I might remain vegetarian after leaving school (I did not in fact), I still had an occasional yearning for meat. It was one of our regular naughty escapades to go down into the town where a mobile café served spam and chips for an affordable sum. Another of our favourite food supplements was a threepenny Lyons Individual Fruit Pie from the local corner shop.

None of this can really be called hardship, but we were called upon to make some contribution to ‘the war effort’. There were days when we were sent off to help local farmers with lifting their potato crops, armed with a packed lunch and a large bottle (glass of course) filled with weak sweet tea. There were also harvest camps in the summer holidays, when we went off to stay on farms in Lincolnshire for a week or two during the harvest season. It was extremely hard work, but fun as well, as this sort of communal effort usually is. The picture shows washing up duty on a day when I was not sent out into the field. [Double click on it to see a larger version.]

Oh yes, and I was elected to the Economy Committee in my senior years, which entitled me to go around annoying the hell out of people by switching off unnecessary lights and turning down central heating. I wasn’t all that popular anyway, but I couldn’t resist the bossy role!

Some of our male staff left to go to war, of course, and one of them became a well-known war correspondent for the Daily Telegraph (Christopher Buckley). Sadly he lost his life later in Korea, having almost taken the decision to retire after World War II. Another was the housemaster of whom I wrote in my other blog in “Escape artist”. He left behind a disconsolate wife and small son, and I do remember that her temper became extremely short during his absence, which I hope we had the understanding to forgive.

That lovely couple, who ran their school boarding house with a firm but enlightened hand, has remained in my heart, (along with the principal and his wife), as the role models of my choice. Some thirty years later I had the good fortune to find myself on a channel ferry with them crossing from Belgium to England, and they carried me off to have breakfast with them in Cambridge, where I had a date with my dentist. They had eventually left the school to run an international school of their own in Switzerland.

Sunday, 10 June 2007

Boarding school - affairs of the heart

There is one leisure pursuit – and here the word ‘pursuit’ achieves its full significance – which I have not mentioned so far, sensing that I should wish to devote a whole post to the subject. I am of course referring to boys.
The first boy with whom I developed a mutual tendresse was a little younger than me, and I cannot recall what drew us together initially. He was 13 and I must have been around 14. He was a very gentle young man, and was destined to die tragically at a very young age, from some blood disease as far as I can remember. Thinking back my memory of him is of a pale child, with an ethereal look already about him. We did no more than spend time alone together on the school field, and sometimes we held hands – such an innocent and yet meaningful touch, and one which has continued to hold great significance for me throughout my life. A. gave me my first love token – a small bone ring which he had made for me in his craft lessons. He had made it with a flat surface for part of the circumference, so that it might be engraved, and I have always been sad that he never actually did this. I still have the ring, and over the years I have often worn it, either on my finger, or as a scarf toggle. It won't fit over my nobbly knuckles any longer.

A's ring

My next admirer was B., a year older than me. He and I would take walks through the Hertfordshire countryside during the summer term, and the smell of May blossom, or of Queen Anne’s lace, or the stubble fields of harvest time under a sweltering sun, have always tended to raise the sap in my veins again, in recollection of those early stirrings. B. too made an offering for me in the craftshop, a beautifully turned wooden candlestick. This too I have kept, and it is brought out at Christmas with a red candle in it. My mother inadvertently caused me great distress, when I was still living at home, by washing the candlestick in an attempt to remove the wax spatterings. Unfortunately this destroyed the beautiful polish which it had been given, and it never looked quite the same again. I found it difficult to forgive her!

G. was the first boy I set my sights on and pursued unilaterally. Shamelessly, I would take every opportunity to talk to him, and would often plonk myself down beside him at one of the work tables in the library, and sit studying next to him. That must have been very annoying for him. I don’t think he was ever really interested in me, but showed remarkable patience for some time, even when I escaped from my dormitory one night to visit him in his sleeping hut in the school grounds. He put a good face on it, got out of bed and suggested we take a walk. We went across the school field and into the apple orchard. I think it must have been September, as the fruit was ripe on the trees and starting to fall. The scene was wreathed in mist, and lit by a gentle luminosity from the moon. Out of nothing more than this my romantic heart created an occasion of real magic, which glimmers imperishably in my memory. But soon after that he got me off his hands, apparently by asking another boy to take me on, though I didn’t find that out until much later.

And so I turned my attention to E., who had actually invited me to go for a walk with him. Another occasion of the utmost magic: an October night with a wild wind blowing, and copper coloured clouds scudding across a lurid moon. We took our romantic walk, believe it or not, along the Great North Road, which must have been a deal more rural around Letchworth in the 1940s than it is today. We cuddled a bit, and talked, and as far as I was concerned I was well and truly hooked. But alas, I didn’t hold his attention for very long either, although I yearned over him for the rest of my school days. Which reminds me that in my spare time I also wrote a great deal of soppy poetry, in both English and French! I will spare my readers that however.

B's candlestick

Footnote - Strange customs develop in a closed community: acknowledged pairs would exchange friendship pins, and the girl would wear her boy’s jacket over her shoulders. When she no longer wore it you knew the girl had been ‘dropped’! (Roll on Women's Lib!)

Thursday, 7 June 2007

Boarding school - escape artist

Or: Romance rears its head
I was a pretty good at escaping while at school in Letchworth – preferably at night, out of windows and down fire escapes. I don’t mean that I wanted to escape from the school – far from it – but that I wanted to escape from my dormitory for the purpose of unauthorised meetings with boys.

I made a trial run at the age of about 13, before I had any real interest in the male of the species. This was just sheer naughtiness, giving in to the temptation of being where we shouldn’t, and I was not alone on this occasion. We went into a teacher's bedroom and climbed out of the window and onto the roof. Of course we were discovered, and received a severe talking to by the house father. (Boarding houses were run by married couples.) But I think what made the biggest impression on me was not the fierceness of the wigging he gave us, but the long, long time he sat at the piano afterwards, playing sombre music, with stern disappointment on his face. He was a man I liked and respected, and it pained me to have upset him so much.

But that didn’t stop me a year or two later, when I wanted to leave my bedroom and make my way to where my particular 'crush' of the moment was sleeping. It was a school designed to give us the maximum advantage of fresh air, in addition to the vegetarian diet and Quaker principles, and in the senior school the boys slept in wooden huts or brick ‘cells’, built outside the main building. Hence the need for escape routes. When I returned for an old scholars’ reunion in 1997,
I took great delight in photographing the two routes which I remembered, one from a first-floor dormitory and over a balcony, and one from a second-floor bathroom and down a fire-escape. I have marked the exit points on the pictures here.

On the first occasion the unfortunate youth did not know I was coming – I have always been inclined to pick my own quarry and start the chase myself – but he put a good face on it, got out of bed and suggested we take a walk. There was a school field, of course, and lawns, kitchen gardens and an orchard. I think it must have been September, as the apples were ripe on the trees and starting to fall. The scene was wreathed in mist, and lit by a gentle luminosity from the moon. My romantic heart created an occasion of real magic, which glimmers imperishably in my memory.

Regrettably, the young man never really took a fancy to me – (saw him at that reunion, bald as a coot. Oh! where are all the golden boys and girls?) – and he asked another boy to take me off his hands, though I didn’t find that out till much later. This other fella also suggested a walk, so off I went again.
Another occasion of the utmost magic: an October night with a wild wind blowing, and copper coloured clouds scudding across a lurid moon. We took our romantic walk, believe it or not, along the Great North Road, which must have been a deal more rural in the 1940s than it is today. We cuddled a bit, and talked, and as far as I was concerned I was hooked for the rest of my school days, though once again I failed to hold his attention. (Clearly, I was going to be a late developer!) The other day I found a sonnet I wrote after that walk along the Great North Road. Urrghh! It was sickening - I won’t inflict it on you.

Footnote - Strange customs develop in a closed community: acknowledged pairs would exchange friendship pins, and the girl would wear her boy’s jacket over her shoulders. When she no longer wore it you knew the girl had been ‘dropped’! (Roll on Women's Lib!)

Monday, 4 June 2007

Boarding school - leisure pursuits

At boarding school there is a lot of time to be filled outside the classroom. There was homework of course. There was, I think, an obligatory hour of work time each evening (it might have been more in the senior school), but with the assignment system, we planned for ourselves what work we did in that quiet time, and when we would fit the rest of it into our free time. I did not learn any extras, such as a musical instrument, as I had no talents in that direction. I was not sporty either so did not get involved in matches with other schools.

I was still keeping pets, and we had a "pets’ corner" in the school gardens. To begin with I was still caring for pet mice, but later graduated to rabbits and guinea pigs. Before then, however I remember one drama with the mice. At the beginning of each term, our father drove us the 7 miles to the town of Worcester, where we caught a train for London. On one occasion we were more than half way to the station when I suddenly realised that the travelling box with the mice in it was not on my knee – I had left it on the sideboard at home! So my father turned round, drove us home where I picked up the mice, turned round again, and still managed to get us to the station in time to catch the train. It was a good thing we always allowed plenty of leeway on these occasions.

In the chorus of greek slaves, in 'Hellas'

The school was very keen on drama productions, and I took part in a number of these, which I thoroughly enjoyed. There was also a Literary and Debating Society which was a natural outlet for me, and for a time I was the most active member of the Economy Committee, whose role it was to support ‘the war effort’ by keeping an eye on the unnecessary use of lights and heating. I relished the officiousness of the role.

I remember taking bicycle rides out into the country, though not very often, as I was a bit of a loner and did not have a group of friends to keep me company. I also paid visits to the home of a daygirl friend. I think, too, that as seniors we were sometimes allowed to visit the cinema in the town. On Wednesday nights, in the senior boarding house, we used to have ballroom dancing to gramophone records. How we whirled and twirled to the sounds of Glen Miller. I remember a big boy with a strong arm and a sure foot who was much in demand for Viennese waltzes. I too would sometimes acquire a sudden popularity on these evenings, being the proud possessor of an almost circular skirt, which was considered to be the absolute thing to wear for dancing. But I did not lend it often – I was always dancing myself.

I think we spent a lot of time just loitering or ‘hanging out’, gossiping or putting the world to rights. There was one member of staff who often gathered a group of children about him. He would perch on the deep windowsill in the corridor just outside his room, and we would gather round, and be talking with him for hours. I remember, incidentally, that his room at the top of the main staircase was ideally placed for being aware of any unofficial wanderings and exits from the house at night. He always made a point of letting me know it when I was the miscreant, but he never actually gave me away as far as I know, which was decent of him.

Iseult the Whitehanded, in 'The Tragedy of the Queen of Cornwall'

Sunday, 3 June 2007

Boarding school - fresh air

I have a lasting impression that I was exposed to extravagant amounts of fresh air while at St Christopher’s. I suppose it is not uncommon for schools to expand by means of tagging on rooms and buildings wherever there is room in the grounds; however, at St Chris the senior school seemed to have been constructed specifically to oblige everyone to leave the warmth of the building and expose themselves to the elements between classes.

A lot of the rooms were built around open cloisters, with roofed but open-sided walkways to get from one to the other. It is only fair to say, however, that these same rooms, on their other sides, opened up fully to the garden, so that in a good summer classes could be taken in the fresh air, which more than made up for the rigours of a Hertfordshire winter.

Summer classes out of doors *

Then most of the senior boys’ bedroom/studies (or ‘cells’) were also built as cloisters outside the main building, and some were even wooden huts out on the school field. I am thankful to say that girls slept indoors, but I nevertheless suffered from chilblains throughout the winter.

Even indoors it was a mighty chilly place, with winds whistling down the corridors. There was a minor transgression known as ‘passage dwelling’, when children congregated around the radiators in the warmer corners of the building, vying for the opportunity to warm their backsides against the hot metal, instead of being where they were supposed to be – somewhere else.

As if that was not enough, we all had to get up and go for a walk every morning before breakfast, rain or shine. And after meals we had to wash up our own pudding dishes in a row of wooden sinks which stood outside in the courtyard, roofed, but open on one side.

Spartan, I would call it, as was the regime when we fell victim to colds. If we really felt poorly, we were isolated in a sick room, given no food other than fruit and juice, and obliged to do frequent inhalations of friar’s balsam. We got better pretty quickly! There was an upside to health care however: I can remember attending Matron’s surgery on a daily basis in the winter, to be given a large, gluey, sickly spoonful of extract of malt with cod liver oil. And I have to say that I remained largely healthy for the six years I was under this regime, and that I grew out of my chilblains eventually – (probably when I began to live in centrally heated houses after the war).

The senior boys' "cells" *


* Photographs from "St Christopher School 1915-1975" by Reginald Snell

Wednesday, 30 May 2007

St Christopher School 2

Lyn and Eleanor Harris, Headteachers
[Photograph from Reginald Snell's book *]

Another ‘progressive’ aspect of St Christopher was a much more free and easy atmosphere than I imagine was the norm in private boarding schools at the time. Staff were called by their first names or nicknames, and I would say that there was a sense of partnership between staff and pupils, rather than a strictly authoritarian relationship. School uniform was abandoned for ever during the war, except for the wearing by games teams of the school colours (dark green and gold) for the playing of matches against other schools.

We were encouraged to develop a strong sense of personal responsibility, and there was much more self-determination than at standard schools. In the senior school, instead of daily homework we were given assignments of work, which we were expected to complete within a fortnight. This gave us more flexibility in planning the use of our time. It led however to the reading out at the morning assembly of the dreaded ‘blacklist’, the names of all those who were behind in their assignments. There was also a senior school council, made up of children of the full age range (11-17) and staff, and this was empowered to make disciplinary decisions, among others. The Head used to say the only two things over which he retained the absolute right of veto, were the curriculum, and the vegetarian diet.

The headteachers, Lyn and Eleanor Harris, were Quakers, though it was not officially a 'Quaker school'. There was however an optional Sunday chapel service which was based on Quaker meetings. Also the school gave sanctuary to conscientious objectors who were 'persona non grata' in other places, but were able to get teaching posts at our school. Young male school-leavers who were conscientious objectors were prepared there for their tribunals, which they had to go through if they were not to be obliged to join the armed forces. There were a number of German refugee children in the school too, some of whom were advised to anglicise their surnames before going off to fight in the British Army.

I think I was happy there because my life was full and well-rounded: I was stretched academically and allowed to develop socially and emotionally. I liked, admired and respected the headteachers and the large majority of the school staff, and I have always considered myself lucky to have been there. My family was still not well off at the time, and it was our good fortune that the head teachers believed so strongly in what they were doing, that when they realised how much our parents wanted us to attend the school, they did a special deal, as it were, by taking both my brother and myself at a discount price – “buy one, get one half price” as it were.

The school floodlit on VE night in May 1945

ENDPIECE: Soon after we were married my husband and I were invited to lunch in the home of one of his senior colleagues. Two young men joined the party, the son of the house and a mate who had just come back from a skiing holiday. They were so obviously products of a public school that it was perhaps unwise of me to start talking about the ‘crank’ school that I had attended. I'm sure I actually saw the noses on the faces of these young men go up in the air and wrinkle with disdain. It was a moment that I have always cherished!


* "St Christopher School 1915-1975" by Reginald Snell

Sunday, 27 May 2007

St Christopher School 1

Arundale House, St Christopher School

My brother and I did not have very long to explore and enjoy our new territory. Before the end of September, we had to make the journey to our new boarding school, where my brother had already spent two terms. St Christopher School in Letchworth, Hertfordshire, is the school which I really can remember vividly, and which I often revisit in my dreams. It was where I was extraordinarily happy, and where I remained until I left school for good at the end of the war.

Our parents must have chosen this school very carefully. This was before the 1944 Education Act, which made secondary education free for all pupils in the UK, thereby opening up secondary schooling to girls as well as boys. The educational possibilities available to families living in the depths of the country must then have been very limited, and I think my parents must have cared deeply about finding the right school for both of us, to send us each term from Worcestershire to Hertfordshire to attend this particular establishment.

St Christopher described itself, in its advertisement in the New Statesman, as “a community of some 350 children and adults”, and in those days it was recognised as a ‘progressive’ school, or somewhat less flatteringly by some as a 'crank' school. My cousin Mirabel, who went to a similar school called Bedales, used to refer to them affectionately as 'lettuce and brown sugar schools'.

So what made ‘Chris’ progressive in its time? In the first place it was coeducational, which was relatively unusual then in private schools, and so was a more natural community than single sex schools, thus enabling us to develop intellectually, socially and emotionally in a more rounded way. Indeed, in some respects it was a better place for growth and development for my brother and myself than our home in the country, where we were isolated, both by distance and by the war, from intellectual, social and cultural stimulus, other than what our parents and a very limited social circle could provide.

Secondly, it was vegetarian, though on health grounds rather than on ethical principle. In addition to extra cheese and nuts, thanks to our special ration books, our diet included masses of vegetables and salads; wholemeal bread, and wholemeal rice, pasta and flour for cooking, and strictly no strong seasonings such as pepper and vinegar. I seemed to thrive on this diet, and was convinced I would remain vegetarian when I left school – but in fact I didn’t.

At the beginning of the war the school offered meat dinners twice a week for those children whose parents wished it. This had to be discontinued however, as the catering became too complicated with rationbooks which had to be either one or the other. My mother had the same problem during the school holidays, when she and my father would share their tiny meat ration with mybrother and myself, eking out with the extra cheese ration to which we were entitled with our vegetarian ration books.

Here I am with my younger brother,
clipped from the annual whole-school photograph in the summer of 1940.

Thursday, 24 May 2007

The move to Alfrick 2


The house my parents found in the tiny Worcestershire village of Alfrick (population 250), was the property of a local farmer, from whom we were able to obtain a 21-year lease. Emsmore was not a particularly attractive house externally, with its stuccoed finish and leaded panes which were quite inappopriate to it’s architecture. It stood at the top of a hill on the road between Alfrick and the neighbouring village of Suckley. A narrow lane wound away from the front of the house and down into the village, and up one side of the house ran an unmade up drive to a neighbouring farm. So it was effectively on a corner.

There were lawns and flowerbeds at the side and back of the house, and a large kitchen garden further back still. Across the road on the opposite corner was a small paddock containing a large barn, and an old stable in which my mother kept chickens during the war. Next to the paddock was the fruit orchard containing plums and apples, and beyond that were two fields which we rented out. All of this represented such a change from the flat in London, and before that the restricted atmosphere of my grandfather’s house.

Inside, the house was pretty plain too, but all and more than we needed. There was a large entrance hall from which you could turn right into the sitting room, left for the stairs and the diningroom, or walk to the back and through a third door to the kitchen, the doors to the garden, and a huge room at the back. There was also a loo off the hall. Upstairs you turned left for my brother’s room and the bathroom, right for my room and my parents’ room, and straight along the landing to a small spareroom, and a huge one over the big downstairs room.

There were various outbuildings up the garden, and also on the same plot was a pretty little two up two down cottage of considerable age and charm, which we eventually rented to my mother’s sister, as a bolt hole for her from Birmingham and the bombing raids. Next to the cottage stood a wooden garage where we kept our car, and which was also my father’s workshop.

Our new house had no electricity. In 1939 power was expected to come to the village at any time, but of course the whole thing was put on hold with the outbreak of war. This meant that my mother cooked on a paraffin stove, and we used paraffin lamps and candles to light the house. We had no mains sewage or water either, and our cesspit in the paddock had to be emptied every so often by a visiting collector. It was my father’s daily chore to pump up water by hand from our well into our water tanks. My parents were always so scared that our well would run dry (which it never did) that we had to get used to using the loos without flushing every time.

Despite these shortcomings in today’s terms, we became very comfortable in this property where we had so much room, and where we learned to live the country life, although I don’t think we ever became real country folk. I remember, for instance, that as a family we had already established a habit of lying in on Sunday mornings and having a brunch when we got up. But my mother was embarrassed to realise that farming people have to get up early every day, and that our closed curtains in the downstairs rooms were conspicuous and telltale by noon on a Sunday. So she used to open them before going to bed on Saturday night. Over the 21 years of our lease I think we became pretty much accepted by the local community, and our parents certainly made every effort to fit in and contribute to the life of the village.

Yew Tree Cottage

The move to Alfrick 1

Our arrival in Worcestershire, in July 1939, was a new beginning for my mother and father. In 1938 my Great Aunt Maimie had died, and being a childless widow, as I have mentioned before, her estate passed to her three sisters. My grandmother having pre-deceased her, her portion passed directly to my mother and my Aunt Fay. This must have provided my parents with sufficient financial security to leave my grandfather’s house and set up on their own again.

I presume they made a deliberate decision to move to a property with a smallholding, which my father could work himself, which he would enjoy doing, rather than being miserable trying to sell cars. Why they decided to move first to a flat in London, while they did their house-hunting, I do not know. Perhaps by then they simply could not wait to make a change. It must nevertheless have been a difficult decision for them, as they not only made a school boarder of me for two terms, (which they could probably bear!), but they also sent my younger brother, at the age of only 7, to the new boarding school they had chosen for us, and which I too would be attending from September. This was extremely hard on him and he was very homesick.

It was a new beginning for me too, or rather, it was more as though it was the first beginning for me. I seem to feel a direct emotional connection with the girl who started life in a new home and a new school At that time. The period before that is more like the life of a child observed or read about, but not actually lived by me. But from that point on my life seems to have flowed seamlessly, and I remember it in much more detail. This may have been partly due to the outbreak of a major world war, which is a marker or fixing point in anyone’s life, which will afterwards be seen as having been lived either ‘before’ or ‘after’ that point in time.

But I think that the more likely cause of my sense of continuity since then, is that I was now happily settled in a boarding school where I remained for the rest of my school years, where I felt I truly belonged, and where I was guided, stretched, supported, and nourished on all levels. Meanwhile, my parents became happier, despite the austerities of wartime, and created a loving home for my brother and myself, which was there for us to return to again and again, until the lease expired in 1960. By that time both of us were married.

Thursday, 17 May 2007

My relatives 3 :: My father's family

Jack and Edith, with companion 'Doddy' (left)

My father's parents had left Birmingham some time before we arrived there, and gone to live in the village of Tanworth-in-Arden, not far from our previous home in Henley-in-Arden. Sadly, Gampy Jack had died in 1922 when I was only two, and it surprises me to realise that I have a dim memory of him lying on the sofa in our sittingroom, feeling rather poorly. But I have no significant memory of him at all. At the time of his death, my grandmother's companion - Dora Dodd, whom we all loved and called 'Doddy' - was already installed in the household, and the two women lived on together for many more years, with Doddy acting as my grandmother's chauffeur as well.

My grandmother, whom I called 'Gandee', survived until 1943, and I clearly remember visits to her home, and also her visiting us during the war. At that time, much to my surprise, I discovered that she wore a wig, for her hair was rather thin. I fear me that I may have to follow her example before long. She also told me that she liked to see me with my hair parted in the middle, and that I should never change it. Not surprisingly I settled for a side parting eventually, but I hated to go against her.
My father's older sister Phyllis had married and had two daughters, Cordelia (Cordy) and Mirabel (Mira), and I used to meet these cousins when we all stayed at Longfield, Gandee's country home. Mirabel became my particular friend over the years, and rates second to my Aunt Fay in importance during my early life.

Mira was a year or two older than me, imaginative and daring (or should I say mischievous?), and would lead me in fine romps and fantasies which I enjoyed hugely. In our younger years we dressed up endlessly in the leftovers of our grandmothers' Edwardian underwear, and my mother's fancy frocks from her courting and dancing days in the 1920s. [Many of these would have been welcomed by costume museums, and I now rather regret the way we trailed them round the garden, treading on the hems, muddying and tearing them.]

As we grew up and entered upon adult life, Mira and I continued to spend time together from time to time, sometimes staying at each other's homes, sometimes going on a trip together, sometimes just meeting briefly for a catch-up on gossip. My Coz was my buddy, the one I could discuss pretty well anything with; the one with whom I could engage in lighthearted silliness, extravagant flights of fancy, and endless giggling.

She was also inclined to instigate extravagant pranks, such as the time in a Paris Hotel when she suggested capturing one of the young waiters by throwing a sheet over his head and bundling him into the lift. The embarrassing result of this undertaking was that the young man suddenly appeared in my hotel room at some late hour that night, and had to be firmly talked into leaving again.

As so often happens, marriage and families moved us apart, and our shared giggles became a thing of the past. But they continue to be glowing points of light in the landscape of my past.

Mirabel (left) and Judith at Longfield

Saturday, 12 May 2007

My relatives 2 :: Two cousins

Auntie Dith had a granddaughter Gillian, my second cousin, who was about my age, and a welcome companion when we could get together. I would sometimes stay with her in their country home, and I remember long spring and summer days just pottering about the local lanes, all of which, in my memory, seem to have been overhung with lilac trees, whose scent I have loved for the rest of my life.
One disgraceful memory I still enjoy wras a visit we made together one hot summer's day to the Cotswold village of Bourton-on-the-Water, down the centre of whose high street runs a broad and very shallow stream. We were on our own, presumably while my aunt Beatrice was shopping, and were suddenly overtaken, as children are, by an urgent need to pee. Either we did not know where to find a public loo, or we simply couldn't be bothered: whichever it was, we stepped into the stream, ostensibly to paddle, then quietly sat down in the water to do what we needed to. No-one appeared to notice, and we got away with it, though how we accounted to my aunt for our wet bottoms and garments I do not know.

A less amusing episode occurred when she was with me in Birmingham. We had gone up the road to spend some time in the Victoria Park (now called Handsworth Park). Suddenly a man popped out from behind a bush and showed us something we neither understood nor appreciated at the tender age of 9 or 10. (Remember this was around 70 years ago!) We were puzzled but not particularly upset, as we had not the faintest idea what he was on about, but we did find the event sufficiently strange to tell my mother about it. No doubt some useful educational explanation followed. I'm glad I wasn't alone when it happened, even so.
Another important cousin for me was my mother's first cousin Constance Josephine, known as ‘Jo’, daughter of my grandmother’s younger brother. She and my mother Barbara, and my mother’s sister Fay, saw a great deal of each other as children, I believe, and Jo remained a particularly close friend of Fay’s throughout their lives. When I first got to know her I thought she was wonderful: tall and willowy and handsome, though not escaping the powerful nose which has come to me from all quarters of the family. I had a childish ‘crush’ on her, and was thrilled to be attending her wedding in 1936.
Although considerably taller than her husband, she managed to look elegant but not overpowering beside him, in a long slender dress with a huge dinner-plate-y sort of hat. My adoration for her increased, and during the reception I was able to collect a small hoard of ‘treasures’ from the wedding cake: silver bells, a spray of artificial white flowers, a white cupid, and a white satin ribbon. They are still with me, in their box marked ‘Wedding Treasure’, in a suitcase in my spare room.
The reception was held at my great aunt Maimie’s house Elmwood, about the grandeur of which I have already written. From the picture below you will be able to judge something of the size of the gardens; also of my mother’s elegance (being tall like her cousin, and also well able to carry a large hat). The young girl disappearing off the bottom of the picture is my cousin Gillian.

Cousin Jo's wedding day in 1936


Cousin Jo was widowed during the war, and came sometimes with her two small sons to stay in the cottage next to our house, on our smallholding in Worcestershire. The elder boy was a beautiful child, and I transferred my adoration to him for a while, although I continued to think highly of his mother until the end of her life . Before he died in Burma, her husband Robert sometimes wrote me letters, which has always seemed to me a most generous act to a child he barely knew; I kept his letters for many decades, because I was flattered that he wrote as between adults, until eventually I returned them to my cousin many years later.

Friday, 11 May 2007

My relatives 1 :: Mum's mum and her sisters

Sisters : Mamie, Nell (Grandma), Janey, Edith
When we moved to Birmingham I began to know some of my relatives a whole lot better, as many of them still lived in that city, in which both sides of my family was rooted. In addition to my grandfather there was an aunt, (my mother's sister); three great aunts, (my maternal grandmother's sisters); and a first cousin of my mother's. There were occasional visits too from a second cousin of mine. My father's mother lived not far away at Tanworth-in-Arden, and there I would sometimes meet with my father's sister and her two tdaughters. But apart from my immediate family, the most important of all these people throughout my life has been my mother's younger sister Fay, but I am going to write about her later, and give her a post to herself.
I shall begin with my my mother's mother and the three great aunts, whose picture is at the head of this blog, and again, many years older, at the foot. The eldest was Mary Maude, known as Mamie. She married a well-to-do manufacturer of rules, spirit levels etc, and lived in considerable comfort in a large house with extensive gardens called Elmwood. I remember a lady's maid or companion and a chauffeur. There must have been house and kitchen staff as well, and gardeners. She was already a widow when I knew her, and had also lost her only son during the First World War. She was a rather stern faced and daunting person, understandably perhaps, though in fact she had the kindest of hearts. I know now that in her youth my Aunt Fay looked to her for the love and comfort which she did not apparently receive from her own parents, who by her account were very difficult to live with.
I have never forgotten the occasion when Auntie Mamie received a telephone call while I was visiting her. She asked me to write down a telephone number she was given on the self-erasing pad with which I was playing. Do you remember these things? I still have one in my desk. You 'wrote' on a clear plastic top layer with a pointed 'pencil' without a lead. The pressure of this caused a second light-coloured layer to record the information on a carbon layer beneath. The pad could be cleared by pulling it part way out of its frame, causing something to separate the two under sheets. Well of course, that is exactly what I did, out of curiosity rather than mischief, I am sure, and the information was lost while my aunt was still talking. Her stern face became positively formidable, and I was left in no doubt as to how much inconvenience I had caused!
My grandmother Ellen Dora, known as Nell, was the second oldest of the four. She is only just a remembered presence in my life, as I was only six when she died at the age of 66. She became known to us as Cuckoo, because of her habit of peeping round doors and calling out 'Cuckoo' to her granddaughter. But I remember her in the beautiful pieces of jewellery my grandfather made for her, which have come down to me through my mother and my aunt. Not so happily I believe I have inherited certain neurotic tendencies which I have observed in both my mother and her sister, and which my aunt describes in her journal. Fortunately there are better resources for coping with such things these days.
The third sister, Janey, remained unmarried and became a school teacher. She was an intelligent woman and became a Senior Mistress if not a Headmistress. I rarely saw her, presumably because the was a working woman, unlike the other great aunts.
The fourth sister, Edith, eventually became known as Aunty Dith. I have two clear recollections of her: the first, when I was staying with her and she was teaching me how to knit. We were sitting knitting together in the evening, when she said to me that I should be going to bed. I immediately bundled up my knitting and got to my feet. My aunt tutted, and told me to sit down again and finish my row, and never to leave a piece of work in the middle - a lesson I have felt it was worth having learned.
On the second occasion, she was visiting us in our flat in London just before the war when I was 11. I stood beside her at the table to show her something, and she put her arm around my knees in a cuddly way. Suddenly, to my intense surprise, her hand crept under my skirt and up my thigh. I was wearing knickers with the elasticated legs pushed up as high as they would go - I hated any form of physical constraint - and my aunt was firmly pulling down the leg again to just above the knee. I was outraged, and made good my escape as soon as I could! How dare she?!

The four sisters

Thursday, 10 May 2007

Birmingham 3 :: Schools, friends & pets

Me (between arrows) at the Edgbaston High School for Girls 1939

Of course, I had to go to a new school in Birmingham, and a place was found for me at a small school of about 60 boys and girls called The Laurels. It was run run by an elderly cousin of my mother's. Once again the process of learning which I went through proved not to be memorable, with one important exception: my little book of 'times tables'. This played a daily part in my life, and I believe I owe my lasting ability for basic mental arithmetic to the emphasis that was put upon it. It was about 3 inches square, in a shiny red cover, and I seem to remember that the tables were beautifully written out by my teacher. No doubt I had to copy and learn, copy and learn, to the point of absolute saturation. I certainly remember sitting at the little desk in my bedroom and poring endlessly over my little red book.

The second school I went to in Brum was a posh one - the Edgbaston High School for Girls. Here for the first time I had to wear a uniform, a gym slip and tie. I wonder how many of you remember the gym slip. And the navy blue serge knickers with elastic round the leg, and sometimes a hanky pocket too, though this was more usually tucked in under the leg elastic. And a liberty bodice in winter - a sort of long cotton vest with rubber buttons on, to which you could attach suspenders to hold up your beige lysle stockings. Oh joy! Oh glamour! I don't think! Discipline was far stricter here than I was used to - no running in the corridors of course. I don't believe that I ever felt really at ease in the school, and when I left it I took with me a particular memory of misery.
In the spring and summer of 1939 I spent my last two terms there in the boarding house, instead of making a daily bus journey, because my parents had left my grandfather's house and were in the process of house hunting from London. During one half term I caught mumps and could not go home to the London flat for the break. I was so unhappy that I poured out all my misery in a letter to my parents. Letters home were, of course, monitored by the Matron - (would this be allowed today, I wonder?) - and I subsequently found myself in the awful presence of both the Matron and the Head Mistress, who harangued me together about being selfish, and upsetting my parents, and they couldn't let me send such a letter could they? Whether I wrote another one or just gave up I don't recall, but I have never forgiven that betrayal.

In my Birmingham schools I began to make personal friends. At the Laurels I met Sybil, who lived quite close to us in Handsworth, and so we were able to visit each other's houses. We both moved on to the EHS together which was an advantage for the relatively short time I was there. I also remember a friend with an unusual name: Catharnie. Allegedly her father had made a mistake and spelled the name Catharine wrongly at the Register Office, and the family had decided to go along with it.
I also began to have pets at this stage of my life. We acquired a tabby cat called Timothy, who surprised us all the day of the Munich crisis in 1938, by producing three small and unexpected kittens – well, I suppose the cat was expecting them, but we weren’t! She chose the pile of sheets in the airing cupboard to deliver them, which must have taken my mother's mind off the diplomatic crisis for a few moments at least. The cat continued to be called Timmy, and one of the kittens was kept for my brother who christened it Roughy Toughy, or ‘Ruffy’ for short. I developed a lifelong affinity for cats, and many was the time that my mother had to remonstrate with me for allowing Timmy to creep into my bed and curl up between the sheets.

Later I began to keep pet mice, in a cage in greenhouse attached to the side of the house. These were the occasion of my learning some hard lessons, probably the first lesson of responsibility for those in our care. I was far from regular with my feeding and cleaning of these poor creatures. My parents, while secretly providing them with what they needed, would let me think, for days at a time, that I was neglecting them, until eventually I would remember them, and be overcome by remorse.
There was a heavy growth of ivy up the wall of the house, beside the greenhouse, and here could be found large quantities of stick insects. I would collect these curious creatures and keep them in a jar, though I doubt they fared much better than the mice in terms of care, and probably did not survive long. Perhaps I was hoping to emulate my grandfather in his interest in entomology

Birmingham 2 :: Our new life

The tomboy emerges on holiday

I remember our three years in Birmingham as a time of great financial stringency, with my parents keeping a cash box with different slots for the different types of necessary expenditure, so that the money saved was there when needed. I suppose we must have been heavily subsidised by my grandfather for a time - indeed, I imagine my grandparents must have helped my parents to buy the garage business too, 11 years previously, though I don’t remember such matters ever being discussed. But the cash box was a visible reality, and at 9 I was also becoming more aware of the world at large, and of my parents’ lives as distinct from mine, and I could tell that all was not as well with us as it had been previously. I do wonder if my grandfather indulged in some I told you so’s at that time, to avenge himself for my parents’ elopement!

My father returned to selling cars, but obviously did not enjoy it. I recall times when, at the end of the day, he would come into the bathroom to wash while I was sitting in the bath. How drained and dispirited he would look, for he was a retiring man, without the assertiveness needed to be a salesman. He also found it difficult to tolerate the heavy beer-drinking sessions which seemed to go with the job.

My mother must have been kept busy with running the household and looking after her family which now included her father as well. It must have been very difficult for her too, adjusting to the change in our circumstances, both physically and financially. Knowing her as I do, I would be surprised if she was not by now taking the major responsibility for the management of our finances, as well as of our comfort and wellbeing at home.

My memories suggest that I was largely unaware of my younger brother’s doings at this stage of our lives. However it seems I did notice him enough to take pictures of him from time to time, once I had been given my first camera: a Kodak Baby Brownie. Unless there is real conflict between them, I suppose at that age siblings are pretty much part of the scenery, as it were. I don't recall any feelings of jealousy, but my brother maintains that I bullied him. I prefer to call it 'bossing him around', which I will admit to!

I particularly remember that washdays were a nightmare, not for me, but for my mother and Mrs Whitfield, the lady who had been housekeeping for my grandfather before we came to live with him. The worst I suffered was probably having to have cold meat for lunch instead of something hot. I recollect a sort of production line running across the kitchen, through into the scullery, and probably out of the door to a drain at the back. I suppose that at that time washing was still done in a washtub which would have to be filled with hot water heated on the stove. After vigorous rubbing, scrubbing, and agitation with a dolly or a posser, the clothes would be put through a wringer which had to be turned by hand, then rinsed and wrung again, and again, before being hung out in the garden. And of course, once the tub was filled, the water would be used over and over, lightly soiled garments first, working through to the really dirty stuff. It took all day, and was undertaken only once a week as a result!


Birmingham 1 :: Our new home

No 172 Hamstead Road, Birmingham

The year of 1936 was a dramatic one. The old King George V died in the January, and his eldest son Edward VIII succeeded him. Then came the drama of Edward's relationship with Mrs Simpson, his refusal to reign without her beside him as his wife, and his eventual abdication, leading to his younger brother's reluctant accession to the throne. I remember reading that the new Queen Elizabeth said something to the effect that this was a heavy honour to bear.

The year was dramatic for my family as well. When it was discovered that my father's accountant had made off with all the business funds, it became necessary to sell the garage and repair shop, which included our home, and we moved to Birmingham to live with my maternal grandfather. Following the death of my grandmother three years earlier, my grandfather was living alone in his large, solid Victorian house in Handsworth. I have been surprised to find I have a very old photograph of it taken presumably in the late 1930s. It appears to be a semi-detached house, which I did not remember; it is curious that the two halves look so different.

Downstairs there was a porch and a large entrance hall, with a dining room on the left and a sitting room on the right. Behind the sitting room was another living room, probably what was called a ‘morning room’, though I don’t remember if it caught the early morning sun. Behind the dining room was a huge roomy kitchen, just the sort to accommodate a cook and several kitchen maids – though if it ever did I was not aware of it. Behind that again was a scullery, and there were certainly some outbuildings about which I am now rather vague.

Up a broad staircase, with a window half way up, were the first floor rooms, comprising my brother’s nursery, my grandfather’s bedroom, my parents’ room, the lavatory, the bathroom, and my bedroom. The bath had a broad mahogany surround, on which there was room for an enormous shell which held the soap. The lavatory had a solid seat in matching mahogany. Up another flight were more rooms, though I only remember my grandfather’s study, a place I might not enter without his permission, as it was where he kept his collections. He was a well-known entomologist, and spent most of his spare time either out in the country, collecting insects with his big net, or in his study mounting his captures in trays, and presumably studying, cataloguing and writing about them, for he would be shut away for hours up there at the top of the house. After he died my mother presented his collections to the Natural History Museum.

My grandfather, (whose name was Colbran or 'Col'), could at times seem rather stern and daunting, but he had very twinkly eyes, and as long as we did not disturb him when he was busy, he was really quite benign, if rather remote. I did not like kissing him though: he had a bristly moustache, and used to kiss my on the lips, which I found distasteful. [It is something I never attempt to do with children, as for me that has an intimacy quite inappropriate for a child.]

Very soon after we had come to live with my grandfather the new King George VI and his family paid a visit to Birmingham. I remember that we managed to find a place along the route of their drive, and to catch a very fleeting glimpse of the two young princesses who, I saw, were of a similar age to myself. I believe that the next time I saw them was heavily veiled behind the darkened windows of a car in their father’s funeral cortege in 1952. And I have seen the queen once in St Albans, at a time when she and I were already ’getting along a bit’!

My grandparents just after their honeymoon

Wednesday, 9 May 2007

Starting school

Age five

I began by going to a small nursery group just across the road, but I remember no moreof it than walking through the door. My first proper school was in Solihull, within driving distance of Henley-in-Arden where we lived at the time. I have no recollection of the lessons learned there, except the hard lessons of life.

There was a disagreeable discipline to mealtimes: no drinks of any sort were given, but we were expected to clean up our plates regardless of likes and dislikes, and of the quality of the food. In my early days there I disliked vegetables, and had a particularly sensitive gorge to fat and gristle – who doesn’t, indeed? With nothing to wash down an offensive mouthful, I had on more than one occasion to get down from my chair and make a dash for the kitchen, hoping to keep my lips closed until a kindly cook gave me a drink to help it on its way.

I was also bullied, and have a lasting memory of being pushed into a clump of stinging nettles – why was there such a thing in the school playground? I was outraged to see members of staff observing the scene through the french windows of the classroom, without apparently seeing any need to intervene.

As it happens, I was nettled again before long. In 1935, on the night of the Silver Jubilee of King George V, there was a bonfire on the hill behind the village, and running down the hill on the way home I managed to trip and fall into a seriously big bed of nettles. I remember a much longer-lasting agony this time, and my father attempting to sooth it with dock leaves gathered for the purpose nearby.

My only other clear memory of that school is of my parents turning up in the middle of a class to take me home, because the King had died, in January 1936. Why it was thought necessary for me to be at home I don’t know, since the whole school was not closing - but of course I was delighted!

Early learning

My earliest memory of formal learning is sitting at a small table in my nursery with my mother, with the coloured wooden letters and numbers which my father had made for me (and which I still have with me now). About the actual lesson I remember little, but I have still on my taste buds the memory of the bread and dripping with which we used to refresh ourselves during the morning, brought upstairs by one of our two maids. Was this the beginning of the primrose path which led to heart surgery and medication with statins for the rest of my life?

I still have a real old school slate, with the scratchy 'pencil' used to write on it. I don't believe that I actually used it in school, but I may have used it at home, and I certainly remember my mother writing our milk order on it, and leaving it on the doorstep. When we moved to the country in 1939 and found ourselves living next to a farm, our milk used to arrive still warm from the cow - also with black floaters of who knows what origin - urrgh! (No pasteurisation in those days.) We left a jug outside with the slate, and the milk was dipped out of a churn and tipped into our jug. But that was some years later on.

A valued companion of my early learning experiences was Mickey Mouse! Mickey was 'born' the year after me, in 1928, (created as we all know by Walt Disney), and so we grew up together. The Mickey Mouse comic was, so my researches tell me, the first comic to be printed in full colour photogravure. It cost 2d or 2 pence which is .80p, ie less than 1p today.My mother began buying the comic for me from the very first issue, and I can remember how, on returning from the shops, she would throw it through the open window to me, so that I wouldn't have to wait those extra few moments while she walked round the corner of the house to the door!

One of my most treasured books, still on my shelf, was called “Talk of Many Things” , named from Lewis Carroll’s poem "The Walrus and the Carpenter".
It is described on the fly-leaf as Book IV in the Reading for Action series - "A Book of True Fact and True Fancy in Prose and Verse". It was published by Nelson, presumably in the mid 1930s, although there is no publisher's print date. (When did a publishing date become regular practice, I wonder - I am so often infuriated by not being able to date old books in this way!)

The book is a wonderful mix of "Nature Wonders", and myths and fables, bible stories, fairy stories, and poems, all liberally illustrated in black and white and colour, to fire the imagination. In addition to Lewis Carroll, the list of contents includes such names as Walter de la Mare, Eleanor Farjeon, H.W. Longfellow, Endid Blyton, Hans Andersen, William Wordsworth, A.A. Milne, S.T. Coleridge and the Bible. If I learned from it, I am sure it didn't feel like learning at the time. But by the time I was reading it, I must have been at school, and that is another blog.

Henley-in-Arden 2 :: the not so good

1935 and now we both have bikes!

Unpleasant experiences? 'Hardly a one' I was going to say; but as I start to think about it, more keep popping into my head, which is only to be expected, for that is life.

I remember the physical agony of falling into a huge bed of stinging nettles, as I ran down the hill behind the village in the dark, after celebrating King George V's Silver Jubilee with a bonfire and fireworks in 1935.

I remember being worried when my father stayed in bed during the day, looking pale and bruised after a motor accident. Fathers are not supposed to be vulnerable - that's what little girls are.

I remember being sad when I was given a letter from my mother's mother, telling me that she was poorly, and that my visit to her would have to be postponed. Shortly after I was told that I should not be able to see her again, as she had gone to heaven.

I remember being embarrassed and remorseful when I broke something in a shop, and my mother had to pay for it, making it clear to me that she could not afford it.

I remember being frightened when I managed to shut myself into the clothes press in my parents' room. Another heavy oak antique, it had once been a harness cupboard, with doors which opened only in the upper part, leaving a deep dark well at the bottom for a child to climb into in. I was shut in alone there for much longer than I cared for.

I remember being terrified when a large (entirely friendly) alsatian bounded up to me and stood with his front paws on my shoulders, at which point he became taller than me, and his weight nearly knocked me over.

But the memory that has proved most disturbing, as it turns out, is one I recalled under hypnosis when I was having psychotherapy some years ago. I remembered that I had been unusually naughty (though I did not recall what I had done), and equally unusually, my mother had smacked me, then shut me in a bedroom and left me alone. What made it worse was that it was not even my own room, but a spare room.

I was astonished to find how much pain was still attached to the episode, when I realised that I had felt as though my mother had withdrawn her love from me. As I spoke those words to the therapist, a sort of electric shock passed through me, and I continued for two or three days to feel a childish distress and need for comfort. Nevertheless, I found this a fascinating and healing experience, and would have been interested to try it again, but I never have.

In January 1936 the King died, and that same year we had to leave The Corner House. One of my father's business associates had made off with all our money and we were in dire straights. By the end of that year we were living with my maternal grandfather in Handsworth, a suburb of Birmingham.