Friday, 10 October 2008

Postwar - Gap year

The war in Europe ended in May 1945, and in July I left school for the last time, aged 17, with a good bunch of A levels (Higher School Certificate in those days), which would enable me to go to university. My parents had come to the school when I was 16 to consult with the staff and me about my future. My big strength was languages - A levels in English, French and Spanish - but in those days, I was told, the only options for a language graduate would be research or teaching. I didn't fancy either of those, but I did rather fancy myself trying to do something for other people, so it was agreed I should aim for a place at the London School of Economics to do a Sociology Degree, or at Manchester to do Social Sciences. That was the first big mistake I made in my life, as it turned out, a choice that was wholly wrong for me. But I wasn't to find that out for another two years.

[This a polyphoto of me aged 17. Polyphotos were sheets of 48 pictures taken as you moved and talked naturally (you hoped), and enlargements could be ordered of any of them.]

At the end of the war, people returning from serving in the armed forces had priority for places at universities, to enable them to make up for time lost during the war. I therefore had to do something else for a year, and I was found a place at a residential secretarial college in Hampstead. This was a good decision in the long run. I studied shorthand, typing and business studies for a couple of terms, and graduated with modest speeds of 100 wpm in shorthand and I think 60 wpm in typing. This was quite enough to get me a job.

I have two outstanding memories of my time at the secretarial college in London. Food was still strictly rationed of course, and the housekeeper who cooked for us was not imaginative in the creation of meals. Often our pudding would just be an iced bun. She also seemed to have a knack of over-stoking the boiler, and the hot water tank would regularly start to boil in the middle of the night. As it was housed in a cupboard on the other side of the wall from the head of my bed, I always heard it first, and scared out of my wits, rushed to the bathroom to open the hot tap. [These are the girls at secretarial college. I am in the middle row, second from the left.]

But such drawbacks were as nothing set against the magical discovery of the London theatres. In those days - I don't know if it still continues - you could go early in the morning to the theatre of your choice, and buy a ticket which would give you a place in the evening in the queue for 'the gods'. These were the highest areas of a theatre such as the balconies - probably still are - and were generally the cheapest seats. I couldn't tell you for certain now how much we paid, but I think it might have been only one shilling (5p).

I think my very first visit must have been to a double bill at The Old Vic's New Theatre. Oh my goodness! Just imagine the impact on my young mind - (I don't think I had ever been to a theatre) - of a 38-year-old Laurence Olivier playing both the title role in Sophocles's Oedipus, and Mr Puff in Sheridan's The Critic. I was totally enraptured. Also playing were Sybil Thorndike, Ralph Richardson, Miles Malleson, Margaret Leighton, and Joyce Redman. I must have gone twice, as I have two programmes, one of them autographed by Laurence Olivier, Sybil Thornkide and Margaret Leighton.

[This is the cover of Theatre World for December 1945. Judging by Sir Laurence's dark brooding look, I think this must have been taken in his Oedipus role!]

I returned to my family home in Worcestershire, and was able to get job at Ronkswood Hospital in Worcester as a medical secretary. The Hospital had, I understand, been built during the war as a temporary hospital, and was used to treat wounded service personnel. This was still the case when I worked there, following doctors on their ward rounds and making notes of their comments. How I managed to cope with the medical terms I do not know, as they had certainly not been covered in my secretarial training. The hospital was still in use as a civilian hospital in the year 2000, I believe, but has since been raised to the ground, apart from a building which still carries communications antennae. I think I worked there for only about four months, as plans were already being made for me for the next academic year.

[Picture copyrighted by Richard Dunn. For conditions of reuse go here.]

1 comment:

Judith said...

Dear Muriel,
Thankyou for your interest in my blog, however I do not believe I can help you. I have no memories beyond the rather vague ones I have described in my post "Postwar - gap year", and no recollection at all of getting Margaret Leighton's autograph. I only know that I did so because I have it still. So sorry, and good luck with your biography.