Saturday, 11 October 2008


Before settling down to full time study again, there was a long summer vacation ahead of me, and I was about to take my first trip abroad. There were no school holidays abroad during the war of course, or student exchanges, but I did have a pen friend in France, which had been arranged for me while I was in school. I had now received an invitation to go and stay with her, and so it was arranged that I should go for a few weeks during the summer of 1947, before the university term began.

It is strange, but I hardly remember playing any part in all the arrangements that were made for me after leaving school. They certainly had my agreement, but I think my mother must have done all the hard work involved in making enquiries and setting things up. And it can't have been as easy as it is now with the internet. Today, I imagine young women do not rely on their parents in quite the same way, although I certainly tried to do as much for my sons in their turn.

So, at the beginning of July I would set off to spend a month with the family of my pen friend Lucette Durand, who lived with her family at Pont-sainte-Maxence, on the River Oise in the Picardie region. Preparations for the journey had to be made, and as I had been living in London while I completed my French and Spanish studies, and so had to move all my stuff to the home of my father's sister Phyllis - or 'Pete' as she was commonly known.

There were tight currency restrictions at that time: I was allowed to take travellers' cheques, but only £20 in English currrency; if you brought some home again with you, the amount was written in your passport and credited to you for your next trip abroad! I also had £5 or 2,300 French francs in currency. My second class train ticket from London to Paris (1st class on the boat) cost £3.0s.6d, plus 9/6d (9s 6d) commission on the exchange. Food was still rationed at that time, so I drew all the rations I could on my Ration Book before leaving, with the intention of taking them with me as an offering to my hosts. Before leaving London, I also went along to the London School of Economics to put my name down for one of the women's halls of residence, as the LSE was not a residential college. On my last day my aunt took me out to lunch and to the theatre, and then on the following day saw me safely onto the boat train.

My Aunt Phyllis outside her home in Chelsea

You will find my account of my trip to France on my blog LETTERS FROM ABROAD.

I get a place at the LSE

With my A levels in English and French, and the results I achieved at the end of this year in Spanish and Latin, I was successful in gaining exemption from the whole first year of Intermediate studies for an arts degree, and could start at the LSE (when I eventually got a place) at the beginning of the two-year Sociology course. Incidentally, I don't believe I could have passed the Latin set book exam without the help of the shorthand I had learned in the previous year. As we worked through the book translating it in class, I made a record of the translation in shorthand, and then attempted to learn the whole thing by heart. It must have done the trick! Now was the time for me to do the LSE entrance exam.

My own view of my performance in the exam was that it was pitiful - I already felt myself to be out of my depth with the questions that were asked. However, to my surprise, I was offered a place on the Sociology course starting in the autumn of 1947. To this day I wonder if any influence was brought to bear in my favour. My history teacher at school had encouraged and helped me to apply for a place, and before I came to take the entrance exam, he had, as it turned out, left the school and taken an appointment as a lecturer at the LSE. I thought a great deal of this teacher - the more so when he married my beloved biology teacher. He was not the sort of man whom I would have expected to do anything that was not utterly straightforward, but my confidence in my own performance was such that I almost have to believe that he did.

I had not relied solely on my hope of getting a place at the LSE, but had applied also for a Social Sciences course at Manchester University, and had gone up there for an interview. It is strange the things that stick in one's mind about certain occasions. I remember little of Manchester, the University or the interview, but I have to this day a brilliant picture in my mind of a shop window, where I spotted the very sandals that I had been looking for all summer, creamy white and gleaming, which I bore home with me with a triumph much greater than that of being offered a place shortly afterwards. There had been another pair of shoes which were a perfect buy, and which threw a lasting glow over my time in the secretarial college - brown leather and suede, with a two-hole lace-up in front and a small heel, both comfortable and smart. Then there were the blue and white lace-ups with chunky heels that supported me through the summer that I developed arthritis in my ankle, and could no longer wear flatties. But this isn't really about shoes .......!

I wish I had chosen Manchester. I think I would probably have understood the course subjects in Social Sciences, and would have adjusted happily to living amongst Mancunians, no doubt adopting the local vowels, as I did in Cheshire many years later. (I was a linguist by natural talent, after all.) I might actually have graduated, and who knows where my life might have gone. But I chose to stay in London and go to The London School of Economics, because I had met and fallen in love with Michael, the man I did not marry until nine years later, but to whom I remained married for 50 years, until he died just two years ago. The story of Michael is really a tale on its own, which may never be written here, but these notes cannot be written without him.

Friday, 10 October 2008

My studies are resumed

During the summer that I worked as a medical secretary at Worcester's Ronkswood Hospital, it must have been made clear to us that I would not get a place at the London School of Economics in 1946 either - still too many returning service personnel taking up the places. So another plan for another year was needed. We decided that I should attempt to advance my further education anyway. A Sociology Degree was an arts degree, a three-year course of which the first, known as Intermediate, was a general foundation course in arts subjects. My good A levels in English and French exempted me in two subjects from this first year, but I needed to pass two others at Intermediate level, one of them a classical language. I had a subsidiary A level in Spanish, and with special coaching at school, with this in view, had achieved London Matriculation standard in Latin. It was obvious therefore which two subjects I should work on.

Places were found for me at Kings College in London, to study Spanish, and Birkbeck College (an evening college) to study Latin. At both colleges I should be an external student going in only for classes, two or three times a week for each, as I remember. I would have to have something else to do for the rest of my time, and I would have to live somewhere. At this point, another unfortunate choice was made. It would make sense for me to get some experience in the field of social welfare, as that was the occupation I was working towards. St Margaret's House Settlement, in Old Ford Road, Bethnal Green, was an independent charity established in Bethnal Green in 1889 to serve both the local and wider community. At that time it was staffed entirely by women, and it was not until 1953 that the Council decided that men could be resident at St. Margarets House as well as women. I would live there as a student and join in the Settlement's activities in the community, having time off to attend my classes in college.

There were two reasons why I did not fit in to this community. Firstly, I was expected to attend chapel on a daily basis, and I was deeply disapproved of for not wishing to do so. I was baptised into the same rather obscure non-conformist church that my mother's family belonged to (The New Church of Jerusalem), and my father was a Unitarian. But although I seem to recall attending church with my parents from time to time, they were not regular observers, and I was raised to believe in God in only a rather general way. At the age of 16 (two years earlier) I had come to the conclusion that the Christian God was not believable, and I have never changed from that position, although I continue to find it unsatisfying to take a purely rationalist and scientific view. I did eventually receive a grudging dispensation from attending chapel.

My rational mind was rampant, however, in regard to the other source of my dissatisfaction. The women residents, all of mature years, as distinct from myself and the other students, appeared to be held tightly in the moral grip of the warden, a highly intelligent woman but with not much of the warmth of humanity that I could detect. The code of manners at table appeared to be dictated by her:

  • you must not ask for something to be passed to you, but must wait for your need to be noticed by your neighbour;
  • between courses each person must carry her own dirty plate into the kitchen, regardless of the chaos it caused in the kitchen for the cook; there was no question of stacking plates for one or two to carry;
  • if boiled eggs were on offer everyone must open them at the narrow end, because that was the proper way to do it.

The first of these I can now view as a useful discipline for instilling into the selfish minds of adolescents a caring attitude towards others. The other two remain totally unjustified by any sort of reasoning that I can think of, and I remain indignant to this day at the thought of these mature women meekly opening their eggs in the way that they were told to.

My youthful intolerance was tolerated however - (I did try to comply at table if not with chapel attendance) - and I remained at St Margaret's House until I had sat my exams in Spanish and Latin, and could return home.

[Dancing was certainly not encouraged in my day! St Margaret's was a dour and dreary place. Cartoon from the website of the present day St Margaret's House Settlement.]

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.]

Tuesday, 7 October 2008

My father

I do not think I can do better, while attempting to gather my thoughts and resume my narrative here, than to post a piece I wrote in honour of my father. It has been in draft for a long time, as I could not decide where best to place it in my lifestory. But here I am, uncertain about how to go forward, and here he is as always, to give me the support I need.
[Here he is in a rare formal pose - rather like a 1940s filmstar to my eyes, but I think it more likely to be the suit he sold cars in.]

My father was a shy and retiring man. He had spent four years in a civilian prison camp at Ruhleben in Germany, during the first world war, which had had a lasting effect on his personality, leaving him an unadventurous and home-loving man. He had gone to a Gymnasium in Germany to improve his knowledge of the language, but was almost immediately interned, and so lost the years between 19 and 23 when he might have trained for some sort of occupation. Such was the nature of the prison community, however, (about which there is a great deal to be read on the web), that I believe he learned many practical skills which stood him in good stead in later life. [Here he is in the camp, on the left, with some of his companions.] After returning to England he worked for a while in the family glass manufacturing business, but then turned to selling cars, cars and motor-racing being something of a passion.

After his marriage to my mother in 1925 they moved to Henley-in-Arden in Warwickshire, to run a garage and motor repair shop. When they had to give up the business, after an associate decamped with all their funds, we moved to Birmingham to live with my grandfather, and my father returned to selling cars for a time. But although he knew and loved cars, and was an excellent and careful driver and mechanic, he lacked the assertiveness necessary to be a successful salesman. He also found it difficult to tolerate the heavy beer-drinking sessions which seemed to go with the job; I remember how drained and dispirited he would look when he came home from work in the evenings.

Thankfully, within three years of moving to Birmingham we moved again, in 1939, just before war was declared, to a small village called Alfrick, near Worcester. There my parents took a 21-year lease on a house with a smallholding, consisting of large kitchen garden, fruit orchard, paddock and two fields. Here my father was happy once more, working the smallholding growing fruit and vegetables for the Worcester market, and learning the ways of the country.

My father’s love of working with his hands extended well beyond the smallholding, and was a blessing to us all. He could repair pretty well anything, and would also create all manner of useful and attractive objects as well – photo frames, small boxes and containers, props for plays - although I don’t believe that he had any power tools to assist him. This was particularly valuable during the war when materials were scarce, and the government was exhorting us to “make do and mend”.

I remember when he decided to make some toys that could be sold at a local charity fete. He contrived two or three doll’s beds out of old pieces of wood, and enlisted my help with making bedding for them. I kept one of them for myself, and it is still in the toy cupboard I have for my grandchildren. I remember too a beautiful lead he made for his dog from plaited leather. Paddy had died not long before my father, and I have always regretted that a rush of sentiment led me to put the lead in his coffin with him. I wish I had kept it.

My father had also taught himself to play the banjo and the piano by ear, (though only in the key of C), and used to entertain the family and others with music and songs. When my parents ran a youth club in the village, he would play endlessly for dancing, and deserved better than the grumbling there was because he only ever played in one key! Many was the night when I fell asleep with the comforting sound of his piano playing coming up from the room below. A few years ago, when my brother came to visit so that we could sort out some family papers, he brought with him a tape recording he had made of our father playing the piano and banjo, not long before he died in 1960. I had not known that it existed, and it was one of the most moving moments I can ever recall.

Dad was an athlete in his youth, winning cups for his gymnastics, rowing and diving. He was also a beautiful dancer. He and my mother, both of them tall, had been a prize-winning couple at dance competitions in their courting days. [Here they are receiving a £5 note for winning a foxtrot competition.] His long legs made him a challenging partner on the occasions when he danced with me, which was not often enough. Although they seldom danced again, other than socially, after they were married, I sensed that he felt that my mother was always his only true partner.

Dad was a kindly and tender-hearted man. He loved animals and could not bear to see them in pain, and would “put them out of their misery” rather than see them continue to suffer, although doing so only doubled his own suffering. Drowning surplus kittens was an agony for him, as was the wringing of chicken’s necks which became necessary during the war when we lived in the country. While in the German prison camp my father kept two fieldmice as pets. At the end of the war one of them, Joey, travelled home to England with him in a tobacco tin in his pocket. When Joey died he was stuffed and mounted in a glass case, and is sitting on top of one of my cupboards at the moment.

Most memorably, and despite his retiring nature, my father was the one with whom we children used to laugh, as our mother, preoccupied as she was with home-making concerns, was not an instigator of fun and nonsense in the easy way that our father was. In his quiet unassuming way he was something of a performer, and had a number of favourite routines with which to amuse us. At one of our houses the door between the stairs and the dining room was glass in the top half. If we were waiting at the table for him to join us, he would walk down the stairs, and then carry on ‘walking’, bending his knees more and more, so that it looked as though he was going on down into a cellar. He also used to imitate the sounds of putting a corkscrew into a cork, then of pulling the cork and pouring out wine from a bottle, all done with his mouth, finger and cheek. He had a very mobile face, and would make the most extraordinary grimaces by stretching the corners of his mouth in opposite directions – his ‘bungy face’ as he called it.

But the one trick my mother dreaded was ‘high treacle’. If we had a pudding which required the addition of golden syrup, he would sometimes stand up on his chair, or on one occasion on the sideboard, raise his arm, and drop the syrup off the spoon onto the pudding from a great height. I don’t think he ever missed, except on the one occasion my mother thought his aim was not good, jumped to her feet to move the plate at the last minute, and got the dollop of syrup in her hair!

My brother and I would make up silly nicknames with him, something that didn’t seem to happen with our mother. At one time, for a reason now forgotten, I started to call him “Pappy Roadman”, to which he responded by naming me “Dappy Streetgirl”. This appeared quite appropriate at the time, and equally innocent. [Here he is at my wedding.]

He also taught us various dubious rhymes, jokes and sayings.
One of my favourites was a comment on the cigarette's of his day and went something like this:

Colossal clumps of camel crap
Lay sizzling in the sun.
The camel laughed like bloody hell
To see what he had done.
“To think that all that stinking mess
Will very soon be State Express…
Player’s please!”

On my last visit to see my father, when we knew that he was dying of cancer, he apologised to me for being an inadequate father. This made me want to weep. It was true that, because of the lasting effects of his wartime internment, his was neither a go-getter nor a brilliant provider. But he was a moral and honourable man, gentle, considerate and loving, talented and full of fun in his quiet way, hardworking, careful and painstaking, and a loyal and willing support to my mother. Although the stronger side of my personality probably comes from my mother, I hope very much there are aspects of my father in me too.

[This is my most-loved picture of my father in his later years, as I remember him best, with his characteristic pipe and cap. The pipe with the bend in it was especially designed for people with false teeth, as it rested on the chin and took the weight off the dentures. The study is the work of a family friend Harriet Crowder, who also took the pictures of my wedding.]

Sunday, 14 September 2008

So sorry!

I am ashamed of having neglected this blog for so long - I seem to have pretty much gone to sleep on it! I got deeply involved, just over a year ago, in researching my late husband's family history for my sons, and that took my attention away from every other project I have on hand. I am coming to the end of that now, and do hope to start writing my life story again soon, though I am afraid it will take me some time to pick up the threads again. I am glad to know that one or two of you are still checking in here, and it grieves me to have disappointed you for so long. I can assure you though that I am in good health, even if my energy reserves are dwindling!

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.