Archive for the ‘Memoirs’ Category

I wonder why it is that, however carefully you pack away the Christmas lights each year, you end up wrestling with a tangled mass of wires before draping them over the tree to discover that they’ve decided not to work. They worked fine during the plug-in test in their jumbled state. This is one of life’s many little irritations and reasonably resolvable after checking the efficacy of each individual bulb but it is a seasonal time-waster.

I managed to avoid one of the stressful Christmas traditions this year – that of actually going out and buying the tree in the first place. For once, last year’s tree has been flourishing, potted up in the back garden, requiring very little maintenance other than the occasional watering. Because I have to have a real tree – and I’m very determined about this – nothing will incite me to unfold a fake tree from my attic – the task of selection and carriage falls to me. Many a year I have suffered scratches to face and arms as I force the shapeliest spruce I can find into my modest hatch-back.


So with the tree decorated, all presents wrapped and cards written, unusually I had time on my hands so, as you do, I hemmed a pair of curtains. Now, this might not sound like much but let me tell you, my sewing box and I are distant acquaintances. It sees the light of day occasionally if a button goes astray but coming out as part of some sort of enjoyable leisure activity is, frankly, risible.

I put this down to the trauma I suffered as a child in my first year at secondary school at the hands of our sewing mistress, Mrs Gorrill. She was a sour-faced little woman, always dressed in black (I think it may have been taffeta – whatever it was, it rustled) and she would rap us over our knuckles with her pinking shears if the stitching on our gingham cookery aprons wasn’t neat enough. My knuckles that term were red raw and I spent much of the time in that sewing room unpicking my sub-standard effort gazing across to the adjacent hut where the boys were doing technical drawing, wondering why girls were excluded from learning about perspective.

We were relegated to ‘domestic science’ which I reckon was only a generation away from ‘housewifery.’ I wasn’t much better in the cookery room, either. I remember my Swiss roll unravelling and ending up on the floor and being told off for pointing a saucepan handle over a hot ring when, in my defence, I’d been taught at home to angle handles away from the edge so that smaller siblings wouldn’t reach up and tip molten liquid over themselves. I think the teacher burned her hand on that handle as she was reprimanding me…hadn’t she heard of oven gloves?

These days cookery is called ‘Food Technology’ and anyone is allowed to take it as a subject, although its current status has gone the way of many of the more useful subjects on the national curriculum and has been savagely down-graded in favour of the academic subjects. While students are still required to make (in my opinion) unnecessary culinary items – fresh pasta, for instance, whoever is going to make their own pasta in halls of residence? – for some pupils, creating dishes in the kitchen is what they excel at and should be given as much kudos as an A star in English or Maths.

img_2144 Little Mai from the Moomins looks just like my old sewing teacher

But what am I thinking? This wasn’t meant to turn into an education based rant. I simply wanted to wish everyone a very Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year. Have fun, enjoy yourselves – and cheers to another blogging year!



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The Saturday job at the chemist provided extra work throughout the holidays which in turn provided me with the cash required to clothe myself as a wannabe hippy in flared jeans and a selection of groovy cheesecloth tops and t-shirts. In a parallel life I was studying for ‘A’ levels, spending copious amounts of time in the art room, wading around in rivers on geography field work or having a wonderful time being properly introduced to Shakespeare by one Mr Herman Peschmann, a diminutive yet cantankerous German who resembled a shell-less tortoise. He had a slight problem pronouncing the word ‘three’ so we spent every lesson forgetting where we were in the text just to hear him repeat ‘Act Three; Scene Three’ which just happened to be on page thirty-three.  To our immature sixth-form minds this was hilarious but he got us through those exams and left us with a lifelong appreciation of the bard.

As if the pressures of the looming exams weren’t enough, we were subjected to our career interviews.  Remember those? You’d be ushered into a makeshift office the size of a broom cupboard (come to think of it, it was the broom cupboard) where an earnestly whiskered elderly woman with bad breath wearing a beige home knitted cable cardigan and flat sandals shuffled a few pamphlets and talked about secretarial college. Or the army.

In days of yore it wasn’t the natural progression to opt for three years at some ivy clad institution slogging your way through every optic in the student union bar and then take a gap year funded by your cash flashing parents – it was still perfectly acceptable to go out to work – and what’s more, there were actual jobs available for those with an inherent  work ethic but fewer theoretical credentials.

With the naivety of youth and a head swimming with implausibly grand ideas of becoming the next Mary Quant, buyer for Harrods or Sunday supplement editor-in-chief I settled in front of Miss Careers-Advice who suggested sweetly that as I had no intention of further education I should definitely think about becoming a secretary. After my dreary filing experience at the bookshop any notion of admin filled me with horror.  I didn’t like to tell her that I didn’t want to BE a secretary, I intended to HAVE one. I left that broom cupboard with a handful of her leaflets and deposited them swiftly into the nearest bin.

I began to panic a bit when several friends suddenly decided that they wanted to be teachers and signed up for various universities. Perhaps I ought to look for something beyond the sixth form, if only to keep the adults in my life from asking what I’d be doing post exams. I trawled through volumes of college prospectuses and finally found what appeared to be a course tailor-made to my lofty, fast-track ambitions. A one year diploma in periodical journalism (an academic year of course means September to June – things were looking better by the minute) at the London College of Fashion in Central London. Marvellous! All my boxes ticked and a year swanning around Oxford Circus: what more could a girl ask for.

I applied, was interviewed and turned up on my first day where I quickly realised that this was going to be the longest year of my life. My fellow course mates, most of whom owned a Chanel handbag, seemed to be treating this as a state-funded finishing school opportunity – a respectable interlude between exclusive boarding school and getting married to a City banker then heading off to the Shires to produce multiple offspring. However, I happily discovered a couple of kindred spirits – one of whom transferred to St Martin’s art college after the first term – leaving me and Val to endure and make the most of whatever came our way.

I have to admit that we probably didn’t embrace our time there quite as we should. We spent considerable time in the nearby Phoenix pub bemoaning our fate over half a Shandy before being dragged unwillingly around all the London fashion shows by Miss Jackson who in her time had been a Fleet Street fashionista but was by now retired and well past her sell-by date. While most of our peers were swooning at the sight of the editor of Vogue in the front row and possibly waiting to prostrate themselves in front of her, Val and I were frantically writing our reports and working out the quickest way back to Oxford Circus to be the first in line for cheese on toast in the canteen before the dreaded evening sessions began. These sessions involved learning a version of shorthand (T-line) which I never got to grips with (smacked of admin) and which I failed dismally.  Then there were the cosmetic science lessons where all I can remember is producing my own hand cream using something called Isopropyle. A word that for some reason has stuck in my memory all these years but which I’ve never had cause to use. The only useful journalistic training we gained was a block of six weeks taken at the London College of Printing. Based at the Elephant and Castle – a less than salubrious area of south London which came as a shock to the haute couture brigade who I don’t think had ever ventured across the Thames, this was where we learned from working journalists about editing, deadlines, printing and the reality of working on a daily paper.  We created our own dummy newspapers, selected stories, set up interviews, had our work rejected. It was fast, fun and furious and Val and I loved it which made returning to the fluffy world of fashion even harder but at least we knew where we didn’t want to work come the summer.

And, as the saying goes, nothing is ever wasted. As the end of the summer term approached, job vacancies trickled in to our tutor at the college. We were encouraged to go for as many interviews as we could. While the Edina and Patsy’s of this world held out for a position on one of the glossies some of us decided to have a bash at anything. So it came to pass that a position presented itself in the press office of the John Lewis Partnership, based at their flagship store a block away from Oxford Circus. I went along for an interview, they liked me; I liked them. It was settled. I said goodbye to the chemist’s forever. I was going to be a partner.

Oh, and by the way, for anyone who has ever thought that the characters of Edina and Patsy in the sitcom ‘Absolutely Fabulous’ are way too over the top, please let me reassure you that they aren’t. I have known people exactly like them – I only wish it had been me and not Jennifer Saunders who had created them. Here’s a hilarious reminder:


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So, having decided at fifteen that I really wasn’t cut out for baby-sitting I scouted around for another way to earn money.  As luck or not would have it, I discovered via our Parish Magazine that a Saturday boy/girl was required at a book shop in our nearest small town, accessible by an ancient and not wholly reliable hourly bus service.

A bookshop! I’d be in seventh heaven. I phoned them up, secured an interview and went on the bus to meet the owner. Crooks Books, as I shall from this point refer to the establishment, took up half an old Georgian house, the other half of which sold antique furniture. Mr Crooks owned both and we had a nice chat across a massive mahogany table. I was a pretty precocious and voracious reader for a fifteen year old which must have impressed him because I landed the position and arranged to start the following Saturday. I can’t remember the exact salary but it was probably in the region of around £2.50 for the day. I’d be rich beyond my wildest dreams.

When I arrived the following week, slightly nervous but aspiring to become young book sales person of the year I was puzzled to find not Mr Crooks in charge but his rapidly introduced elderly mother and her side-kick, Miss Lemon-Wedge. I was hurried through the shop with its shelves tantalisingly full of rainbow spines to a cramped little office at the back where the walls were lined with filing boxes and piles of papers, odd books and other office paraphernalia. Miss L-W cleared me a space on a surprisingly untidy desk and an in-tray filled to over-flowing was put in front of me. She advised me to get everything into alphabetical order before showing me the next stage.

It was chilly in that dark little office with only a single bar electric fire to heat the place. The atmosphere was decidedly chillier. I very soon realised that I would be playing Cinderella to the wicked step-sisters; Cordelia to Goneril and Regan or James to his Aunts Sponge and Spiker without ever getting near the stories themselves, out of reach in the shop. I might have been any number of Dickens characters …

Once I’d sorted the contents of the in-tray which I deduced were publishing house invoices, all stamped with PAID on them, Miss L-W showed me to the filing cabinet: through a door in an even colder corridor running down the side of the building with a main door to the outside. All I had to do was to put these wretched invoices into the corresponding folders.

5042254[1]Not rocket science but it took the best part of the morning, only broken up by Elderly Mother bringing me a weak-looking cup of tea and one digestive biscuit balanced on the saucer. Every time I see Green Beryl crockery I’m transported back to that filing cabinet. Shame really – it has in recent years become somewhat iconic in ceramic circles.

The shop closed for lunch, I was booted out and had to amuse myself for an hour in a small town with no appealing shops, no cafes or anywhere that was remotely interesting to my fifteen year old self. I optimistically thought that my afternoon might prove more exciting but sadly I was deluded. When I arrived back, two minutes early, I was again ushered through to the back room and shown how to cover books in plastic. These books would then be sent out to the local libraries: there were boxes and boxes of them. The job took ages, I kept creating bubbles under the plastic or for the loose covers I found that the tape wouldn’t stick. It was a horrible job but once I’d acquired the knack I begrudgingly admit that it has given me a skill for life. (Not that I have ever supplied any libraries with books, but you know what I mean).

I was allowed into the shop for the last hour of my day where my task was to dust shelves and straighten the books. Miss L-W dealt with customers and Elderly Mother counted the proceeds. I have never known time pass so slowly, even in a Maths exam but I stuck this slave labour out for about six months until another opportunity presented itself and I jumped at the chance, vowing that anything I did in the future would not involve filing.

The opportunity that presented itself came in the shape of Viv’s mother (remember Viv – she of the babysitting monopoly?). She was the manageress of an independent chemist shop in Croydon. Viv was already working there and another Saturday position had just become available. I could see that running monopolies obviously ran in Viv’s family but why should I worry – I was going to work in Croydon, shopping mecca of the south-east.

Croydon has now merged into the sprawl that is south London but in those days it was our largest nearest town. It was where we all went for serious shopping. There was a new precinct with Habitat, Chelsea Girl, Miss Selfridge and the like as well as lots of strange little units selling cheesecloth, joss sticks and loon pants. Now I’d have something to do in my lunch hour and I’d have plenty of scope to spend my hard earned cash. This was more like it.

Working in the chemist was a complete antithesis to the bookshop. It was light and modern. It was fun. It was busy. Viv and I were allowed to serve customers, to work the till (an old-fashioned one, mind; we had to work out any change needed. My mental arithmetic improved overnight). We marked up stock, we created window displays. We had a laugh. We had a stream of regular punters, some of whom would drop in for a chat with Viv’s Mum. One of her ‘specials’ as she liked to call them was a chap called Tommy. He was a female impersonator, as was the description provided to Viv and me. Outrageously camp, Tommy sang in a night club in Streatham wearing a sequinned evening dress and would swan into the chemist seeking advice on his makeup and false eye lashes. Viv and I were fascinated. The song Lola, by the Kinks always reminds me of Tommy and my chemist days.

At the end of the afternoon Mrs Gracie, the owner, would arrive with our pay packets. She was an eccentric old bird who chain smoked Capstan Full Strength cigarettes – even in her shop. Her gash of red lipstick never quite followed the contours of her mouth; she was always clad in black with uncomfortable looking high heels and seamed stockings and she was a million miles away from Miss Lemon-Wedge. I worked for her until I had a proper job.  My starting salary was £3.27 a day.

I had hit the big time.




















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The annual review provided by the Big Brother that is WordPress suggested that we revisit old posts and write about those subjects again. This seemed a bit counter-productive to me but as I trawled through some really old posts I began to see possibilities.

I blogged a couple of years ago about the first paid job I ever had, aged thirteen, writing up the new year’s stock books for my father. (If you want to read about that, you can do so here). This was lucrative while it lasted but it didn’t provide me with regular income and at that age, when the lure of Aqua Manda scented products and shops such as Chelsea Girl beckoned, money was all important.

Babysitting became the next option. A friend of mine, Viv, seemed to have a monopoly in the village which I was keen to break into. A recently built housing estate spawned plenty of opportunity and I began to get the odd Saturday night slot. I can’t say that looking after other people’s children particularly appealed – I wasn’t that bothered about taking care of my own siblings – but Viv assured me it was easy money and that most people had coloured TV sets and a never ending supply of biscuits.

Once the children are in bed, having read them a story, got them drinks, admired their Lego model, reassured them there are no monsters and Mummy and Daddy will be back soon, the evening is pretty much your own but sitting by yourself in someone else’s house is the weirdest thing. You’re not familiar with the creaks the house makes; the heating system might rumble on like thunder, the washing machine, set on a timer, may well spring into action to take advantage of cheaper electricity. There are likely to be small rodents somewhere in a cage running round in a wheel. You are on edge for four hours just waiting for the parents to get back and free you from this potential peril.

One household I sat for locked the telephone in their bedroom. What kind of family have locks on their internal doors – and who in their right minds locks a telephone away from someone who is acting in loco parentis? Did they think I’d be spending the evening ringing friends in Australia? What would I have done if an emergency presented itself? I never sat for that particular family again. In fact, I wasn’t very successful as a babysitter – I let Viv maintain her monopoly – but I stuck it out until I was fifteen or so until I was able to obtain a proper job: my first foray into retail. But that’ll have to wait until part two.

*My Brilliant Career – a 1901 novel by Miles Franklin about a young Australian girl, Sybylla, and her secret desire to become a writer. It was made into a film in 1979 starring Judy Davis. I’ve always wanted to use that as a title – and now I have.

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As we trundle inevitably towards our new school year next week amid threats of redundancy, more cut backs and an ever shrinking national curriculum, here’s a reminder of why we do what we do.

Queuing up in our corner shop the other day, I recognised the young man in front of me as one of our ex students. He bought a couple of cans of coke and a pack of cigarettes.

“Still smoking then Danny, I see,” I said smiling, but trying to force a look of disapproval.

He turned and grinned at me. “Orright, Miss? Hey, do you remember when….?”

We reminisced a little before he left the shop. I watched him drive away in smart little car.

Do I remember? How could I forget? Eight years ago Danny (not his real name) was a student in a class of sixteen listless, under-achieving kids with bad attitude. I supported their English GCSE lessons alongside a young teacher who has since become a firm friend. I shall refer to her throughout as TF (Teacher Friend). She was patient, innovative and determined to get the best from this rabble who were not overjoyed to be in school at all, let alone have to struggle with Shakespeare or, heaven forbid, visit the library and select a book. I admired her enthusiasm but worried that she was being overly idealistic.

Nevertheless, we took them on for two years from the age of fourteen and from the outset they were a challenge. Their target levels were understandably rock bottom. They never produced homework. A detention was not a deterrent – they never turned up for one anyway. Their reading wasn’t fluent; none of them could spell or at least, didn’t bother. They would arrive in the classroom without their exercise books or even a pen. Because they were such a small class and they had most of all their other lessons together as well, they formed a tight bond: they worked and moved as a pack. TF wasn’t having any of this – she set about finding the pack leader and working on him. She wisely reckoned that with him on side, the others might eventually follow.

(I ought to point out now that it was not Danny who was leader; if anything, he presented as slightly anxious. He was content to follow the crowd, take the path of least resistance).

And follow the others did. Amid much groaning and sprawling on desks, we started studying “Much Ado About Nothing.”  Instead of making them write reams and unpick unintelligible quotes, TF got the students acting the play out. Pack Leader was Benedict; our feistiest female played Beatrice. The others took turns in having a go at the other parts; they began to understand the play and, dare I say, enjoy it.

When we finished with that, we moved to a modern text by Willy Russell called “Our Day Out” – chosen because it is a short play about a load of dysfunctional kids going on a school outing. The irony did not pass over their heads: they thought it was hilarious. We began to love these kids: as hard as they found this subject, they had a sense of fun: they began to work for TF and produce essays of sorts. It was more than we had hoped for.

During one lesson, one of the pupils mentioned that she had never been on a school outing. Most of the others agreed. I was appalled. TF and I exchanged glances and before I knew what I was doing I had suggested that we take them to the theatre to see Willy Russell’s musical play, “Blood Brothers” – at that time showing in London.

Well, what can I say – we had opened the floodgates – the kids were thrilled with the prospect. A few of them had never even visited our capital city. They were nervous. To them, London represented a terrorist target.

Of course, we hit massive resistance as well as disbelief in the staff room.

“Take that lot out – you must be mad!”

“You’ll never get the risk assessment passed,”

“Of course you can’t take them by train – far too dangerous!”

“Imagine them in a theatre -they’ll disrupt the performance! You’ll get the school a bad name …”

 And so on…

TF dug her heels in. Management suggested she team up with the Drama department who were running the trip later in the year but she politely refused. She didn’t want our little band of oddballs mixed in with a lot of high achieving students who regarded a theatre trip an everyday occurrence. She wanted this to be an occasion for them.

I dug my heels in. I don’t like being told I can’t do something either, surprisingly. I filled in a lengthy risk assessment form, got it begrudgingly signed and then I set about ordering subsidised tickets, checking out the school minibus schedule and acquiring a driver. My heart sank when I saw the state of the minibus. Used virtually exclusively by the PE department, it was filthy and smelled of unwashed bodies and football boots. Not suitable for a theatre trip to London. I called in a favour from an old ex-colleague who had started running her own hire company. She provided us with a vehicle and driver at minimal cost. Our trip was on – hurrah!

The kids were uncharacteristically enthusiastic. They all paid their fees within a couple of days. We finished “Our Day Out” and started on the poetry, expecting some opposition. There was none. The class continued to work well.

A couple of days before our outing, Danny dropped a bombshell. We were rounding up a lesson when he stood up, said he hated English and wouldn’t be coming on the trip. He stormed out. We were mystified. Nothing appeared to have provoked this outburst.

Pack Leader took me aside and explained conspiratorially that Danny couldn’t come because he wouldn’t be able to smoke. I almost laughed, but not quite. Pack Leader went on to explain knowingly that Danny was addicted to nicotine and “got the shakes” if he didn’t have a cigarette. When I realised that PL wasn’t winding me up, I was horrified. Apparently Danny had been smoking regularly since about the age of ten – with his parents. I thanked PL for his honesty and told him to leave it with me.

I managed to get Danny on his own for a quiet word. I asked him to explain his reason for the outburst. With a little coercing, his reason bore out what PL had told me. I asked Danny if he ever managed to go to the cinema and sit through a film. He had, many times. I told him that a theatre performance was just about the same length as anything at the cinema. It wasn’t the theatre he was worried about, however. We had suggested to the kids that because we would have to leave school in the late afternoon and they’d probably be hungry, we’d go for a burger before the show. Danny told me that after food especially, he needed a ‘fag,’ otherwise he got the shakes and started sweating. I told him that no way was he missing this trip and I’d sort something.

I mulled it over and discussed it with TF. I hatched a plan of which she wanted no part as it might compromise her professional position but she agreed to turn a blind eye.

Can you guess what my plan was? And what would you have done given the circumstance?

Here’s what happened.

At last our much anticipated evening arrived. The students met us back at school having gone home to change into their ‘smart-casual’ clothes. The girls teetered on impossible heels, looked a few shades of deeper orange and carried huge handbags filled with goodness knows what. The boys wore nicely pressed shirts and jeans. Because it was coming up to Easter, TF put little bags of chocolate eggs on each minibus seat which were scoffed down as we drove the forty odd miles to London’s West End. Any affectation of being ‘cool’ dissipated within the confines of that bus. As we crossed the river their excitement grew as they spotted Big Ben and then Nelson’s Column.

Our driver dropped us at Leicester Square and arranged a rendez-vous point for later on. We trooped off to Burger King where the kids were at home ordering their meals. TF and I withdrew a little with a bag of fries and a coffee. I kept a surreptitious eye on Danny, who was having a whale of a time with the others but who was, I noticed, unusually fidgety. When they’d finished, he was definitely looking sickly; I wasn’t imagining it. I nudged TF who, in her teacherly fashion, grouped the kids together and suggested we move across the street to Frankie and Benny’s for ice cream. This was our pre-arranged cue. I stayed behind to make sure the rubbish had been cleared by our party, and Danny stayed to ‘help.’ Then he and I sauntered off in the opposite direction, into the Square, and he (self-consciously, I have to say) lit up. I stood by the gate while he wandered up and down dragging on his horrible cigarette.

Eventually I was joined by PL who had cottoned onto what was happening and didn’t want to miss out, so he had a quick couple of drags too. Understandably, we received a few disapproving stares. I turned a blind eye to that one and, as we walked back to meet the others, while I impressed on them that I thought smoking was a disgusting habit and that it would affect their health this occasion was not to be discussed or mentioned back at school. They promised me that the incident would go no further – and it never has.

Having met up with the others again we walked crocodile fashion along Charing Cross Road to the theatre, our students keeping to a tight, nervous formation. It was interesting to see a bunch of supposed streetwise kids so far out of their comfort zone.

Their amazement and appreciation of the old theatre was gratifying. They gazed about them in wonderment at the old Victorian building. They were awestruck. We had fantastic seats along the front row of the dress circle. TF had grilled into them the need for excellent behaviour as the other theatre-goers had paid top dollar for their seats. We told them there’d be time for sweets in the interval. They were as good as gold, and as the music began, they leaned forward in their seats and became absorbed.

As the play came to its final heart-wrenching scenes, the sound of muffled sobbing came from along our row. Feisty Girl left the theatre with black mascara tracks coursing through her powdered orange face. Our party was buzzing. Danny gave me the thumbs up as we waited for the bus – he looked calm and chatted to the others about the performance. When our driver saw how much the kids had enjoyed themselves he suggested taking them on a short tour of the sites before we left the capital. So they took in Piccadilly Circus, Buckingham Palace and the Houses of Parliament to round off their evening. We arrived back at school after midnight and we dared any of them to bunk off the next day. None of them did. It was business as usual and back to poetry in the classroom.

On my desk I found a scribbled note which said simply ‘thanks for last night.’ It wasn’t signed, but I recognised the writing.

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There’s been much in the media this week about a certain 50 year anniversary – the one that everyone over a certain age professes to know exactly where they were when the event occurred. You know the one I mean – it instantly shocked and rocked the world in a way that Mahatma Ghandi’s assassination didn’t, news not travelling quite so fast or as globally fifteen years earlier.

I was convinced I knew where I was the day the news came through about JFK. My mother disagreed – she said that I couldn’t possibly remember – I would have been far too young. (From where I am on the age scale now, I find that rather comforting). Of course, she was right (mothers always are); it wasn’t JFK’s assassination I remember – it was that of his brother, Robert, some five years later.

I have a vivid memory of standing on a moor somewhere in the West Country while my father listened to the news on his car radio that Kennedy had been shot. I know I was wearing shorts and a navy sweater; the weather was chilly and I remember goose pimples on my legs.

A moor somewhere in the West Country

A moor somewhere in the West Country

To corroborate my memorable tableau of times past, I consulted our holiday diaries, recently passed on to me by Mum during one of her sorting-out fests.

As a family, we kept a holiday diary, the writing of which fell to me from about the age of ten. These diaries have proved invaluable over the years in settling petty family disputes about when and where we may have done something or other while on vacation. So, to prove to myself that the car radio scenario was not a figment of my imagination, I checked to see if our holiday date and venue corresponded with the shooting of Bobby Kennedy in June 1968. No doubt about it. In early June of that year we were indeed on holiday in North Cornwall, as described by my own fair hand in beautiful pre-exam italic style.

While the news item was not mentioned in dispatches exactly, other vaguer memories that I have associated with Robert Kennedy’s death were established. The speedboat ride around Padstow harbour in grey and windy weather bears out the chilliness I experienced on that remembered moor, (must have been Bodmin); followed by knickerbocker-glories in a café.  I am pleased to report that the weather for the rest of our week was hot and sunny and we apparently spent a lot of time on the beach – but of that I have no true memory.

Isn’t it odd how our mind play tricks, selecting what is remembered in crystal clear vision while other things remain lost forever? Reading through some of the old diaries again jogged my memories into believing I had retrieved something from my past – but had I really? Does imagination help in recreating scenes that have slipped away?

Other, more recent world events will always stay with me, just like the memory of JFK does for people slightly older than me. I know exactly where I was when I heard about the twin towers and I know exactly how I felt the morning I woke to the news that John Lennon died, but although our London 7/7 bombings were a recent tragic loss of life – I have no recollection of what I was doing on that day.

As far as earliest memories go, I have a fleeting ghost of a picture in my head of walking along a low brick wall holding Nanna’s hand. It is sunny, there are leafy trees above and to my right is a big white house. I think I am waiting for Dad to drive up in a car. I am convinced it is where we lived briefly before moving to the country – but I would have been less than two years old and the year would definitely be pre-1963. Is this real thought or an imagined picture of my past that I have created because I have since seen that building?

And more to the point – can I ever prove Mum wrong?

Do you have a memory connected to a world event – or I wonder what your earliest memory is? I’d love to know.


Oh, and just one more thing…

The thought occurred to me that sharp-eyed car connoisseurs will be wondering what make of swanky car my family must have been driving in those days for it to have been fitted with a car radio. Well, let me tell you. It wasn’t.

This was our car:

1968 Morris Traveller

1968 Morris Traveller

And this was Dad’s radio:

or one very similar

or one very similar

And the reason I was standing on chilly Bodmin Moor was because we would have had to drive for miles to high ground so that Dad could get a signal. He was obsessed with the news. Every evening at home he would demand absolute silence while he watched the news on television which was, as I recall, often followed by something called ‘All Our Yesterdays,’ which for my sister and me at that time was just plain dull.

(We were both ace at current affairs though).

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I’ve been learning about lines of best fit and anomalies in science with our eleven year olds this half term and have derived a little amusement just hearing them trying to pronounce the word, let alone spell it. (It doesn’t take much to keep me happy).

 I suppose you could say that my love of football is anomalous; an anomaly. It is incongruous amongst my other areas of interest.  If I were to plot a scientific graph, it would lie either above or below my line of best fit. I’m not quite sure what my x or y criteria would be, but I like the word anomalous, the way it rolls off the tongue. (Or not).

Come to think of it, my presence in a science lesson is in itself an anomaly, so let’s stick with football where I am able to hold forth from an even playing field.

Where did this all passion for the beautiful game kick-off, then?  You may well ask; I blame my mother.

Back in 1968 she let me stay up late on a school night, to watch the European Cup Final between Manchester United and Benfica on our black and white television set. Mum was keen to watch George Best play; I think she needed an ally and I was more than happy to miss bed time and oblige. Dad, who didn’t like football at all, sat behind his newspaper and emerged occasionally to cheer Benfica on, much to my annoyance. George Best scored a goal during extra time to help United lift the cup by which time I was hooked. Until he arrived on the scene, footballers looked much the same as rugby players: big and beefy. He was small and looked weedy but moved exceptionally fast with extraordinary skill. The fact that he had twinkly Irish eyes, a Beatle haircut and wore his shirt outside his shorts may also have added to his appeal, I don’t know, but it made me want a team of my own.

Mum said that however much we adored Bestie, we ought to support a team nearer home, (unlike 95% of current Man U supporters who have never even been to England, let alone Manchester), so she suggested Crystal Palace, the nearest team to us at that time. I went along with this for a while but wasn’t convinced as they never seemed to win anything.

A couple of years later, my friend Laura and I returned from a shopping trip where she had bought some hot pants in a shop called Chelsea Girl; it also happened to be the Saturday of the notorious Chelsea – Leeds FA Cup Final. Her grandfather, who ran our local pub, invited several of his regulars upstairs to watch the match once the bar had closed. Laura (wearing the hot pants) and I watched too. The men were all gunning for Leeds which made Laura and I all the more determined to cheer for Chelsea. The rest, as they say, is history.  Chelsea went on to win – eventually, after a replay at Old Trafford – and I found the team I have supported ever since.

Completely co-incidentally, my husband turned out to be a faithful Chelsea fan too, so Son had no choice in the matter and for several years we went to all our team’s home games. The sight of that green, green pitch never fails to impress; the banter in the stands provides much hilarity, albeit a little blue at times.

Football can be a great leveller, and as a female, understanding the finer points of the game can be a distinct advantage, as well as providing cast -iron street cred when necessary.

A couple of years ago, while supporting a geography class of rowdy under-achieving thirteen year olds, one of our, shall we say, less engaged pupils was lolling across his desk, semi-comatose, so I suggested that he sat up properly and got on with colouring in the rivers and mountain ranges on his pre-printed world map.

 He told me to eff off.

This kind of response usually results in removal from the classroom but it also involves paperwork which is a faff so I fixed him with my best icy stare and said,

 “You’re going to have to do better than that if you want to insult me, Peter; I go to football every week and hear much worse,”

He looked at me; he wasn’t expecting this – I had wrong-footed him. I could see him weighing up the situation; for a moment I wasn’t sure whether or not I’d scored an own goal. I held my breath and continued staring at him. Slowly he heaved himself into a sitting position and, with what I can only describe as a rueful grin of respect, began to colour his map.

1-0 to me, then. How I love having the last word…

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After reading my last post, about never having a suitable retort at the right time, Mum sent me a message in which was a story about my Dad. Although in lots of ways I have been told I am a chip off the old block, never in a million years could I hope to come up with something as brilliant as this.

My parents spent many happy holidays touring the British Isles, but Dad hated staying more than a couple of nights anywhere because of having to make polite conversation with other hotel guests where the inevitable question would come up:

“What do you do for a living?”

Apparently Dad’s stock reply was:

“I mind my own business.”

This of course can be taken one of two ways and used to embarrass Mum no end. Nowadays she thinks it was quite a clever response, and I tend to agree with her.

Dad at Pearl Cross

Dad, standing outside the shop where he minded his own business

The photo above was taken in 1993 when I took Son to visit Grandpa’s shop.

Pearl Cross Ltd was in the heart of London’s west end, just off Charing Cross Road.

Dad commuted there, by driving himself from his North Downs village, until he was seventy-eight.

I wrote about the shop in a blog post  which you can read here:

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I spent last weekend lurching from chair to sofa to kitchen to deckchair and reading in between which was wonderful and not something I get the chance to do very often. Apart from acquiring sore, square eyes, it felt like I had achieved quite a bit, although of that I’ve absolutely no proof whatsoever.  I got through a book and a half, so have lowered my reading pile a smidge and caught up with blogs I follow, most of which caused me to deviate somewhere or other. (I now know a little about Galileo’s Paradox – impressed? I know – I amaze myself sometimes).

However, one funny account of early driving experiences, on Rod’s blog, jogged a distant memory which in turn, reminded me of a recent four hour car journey my sister and I took where we talked nonstop, all the way to beyond Liverpool.  ?????????????

The purpose of our overnight trip was to view Another Place, sculptor Antony Gormley’s iron men, spread out along the soft sand at Crosby, staring out to sea, as if waiting for a sign from some alien force. There are one hundred of them, all the same, although several years of salt water washing over them has given each his own patina, and in some cases, a clothing of crustaceans. It is an eerie place: windy, with a power station and cranes in the distance adding to the bleak atmosphere. Over the years, some of the men have become half buried in the sand while others stand upright, hands by their side, waiting, waiting…

But where was I? Oh yes, driving.  I mentioned above that my sister and I talked nonstop during our drive up north. So what, nothing surprising about that, I hear you mutter. Two women incarcerated in a tin box for hours – what else would you expect. Well, I know, but actually, for us to talk in a car at all is a bit of a novelty, as we acknowledged more than once during our four hour marathon.

We have fond memories of being bundled into the back of the family car on a Sunday afternoon, aged six and three, and told to be very quiet while Dad taught Mum to drive. We’d sit there scarcely daring to breathe as Mum crunched around the Kent countryside with Dad tutting as he managed to find impossible gradients for unsuccessful hill starts.  Now, whether the insistence of absolute quietness came at a crucial stage in our childhood development, I don’t know, but neither my sister nor I ever talked much in the family car ever again, apart from asking, before we’d even passed Guildford, if we were ‘nearly there yet’ on our annual holiday to the west country.

Mum eventually passed her test but not before bearing the good-natured brunt of many a joke about women drivers, culminating in Dad buying her the record of Bob Newhart’s The Driving Instructor.  So for Mum and for Rod, who I think will appreciate this – here is Bob Newhart, taken from that original record.

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Every family should have at least one eccentric aunt or uncle, I’ve decided. Mine did – in the form of Uncle Ivor: Dad’s best friend. img001 (3)They’d grown up together since meeting, aged five, at Miss Polly’s school in Purley, South London.  We called him Uncle although he wasn’t related – when we were children it was the polite way to address adult friends. Uncle Ivor spent most weekends with us, mucking in with gardening or the restoration of our once derelict old house.

At least, I think that was the idea.  I have vivid memories of him and Dad spending hours roaring with laughter as they moved heavy pieces of furniture from one room to another, or they’d be up trees sawing branches down in the wilderness that was our garden. While Dad had to maintain a modicum of parental authority, Uncle Ivor was Peter Pan personified. His clothes were threadbare, he’d giggle at things until tears rolled down his face and he smoked like a chimney. A confirmed bachelor, he lived with straight-laced parents so I guess being with us allowed him to let off steam and be himself.

He’d arrive on a Saturday, around teatime.

Dad, me and Ivor - having tea

Dad, me and Ivor – having tea

This was a source of amusement: as a family we didn’t recognise teatime so were never sure what time Ivor meant – Dad teased him about it which made Ivor all the more insistent that teatime would be when he would arrive. Generally, we discovered, this meant any time between three and five in the afternoon and he’d expect a cup of tea and slice of cake which Mum always provided.  He’d usually stay the night, sometimes even stay for lunch on Sunday, but more often than not he would suddenly announce his departure and before we knew it, he was gone. He wasn’t good at goodbyes.

Ivor was more than willing to join in my imaginary games. I was a tomboy and fanatical about Robin Hood, assuming the role at every opportunity. Ivor played Sheriff of Nottingham and was happy to be tied to a deckchair with a skipping rope while my sister, as Friar Tuck (she didn’t know any better) and I rescued Maid Marion (Mum) from her kitchen. Dad was usually on the way back from a crusade, I think, which meant that in reality he was either finishing off a job or fetching a couple of beers from the fridge.

Firework night always included Ivor. Mum would be in charge of supper while Dad and he would be in charge of our firework display. My sister and I would watch from a safe distance behind the dining room window as Dad and Ivor behaved like out of control boy scouts detached from their patrol. One particularly wet November 5th when the bonfire lighting was not going well, Ivor added a splash of petrol to the mix and we had an inferno.

Sometimes after supper, we’d sit around the table playing games – monopoly or cards; Ivor’s trump card would invariably be an ace or king. I think he cheated at monopoly. Whoever lost anything had to pay a forfeit and I remember Ivor running barefoot outside in mid winter, snow up to his ankles.

He even came on holidays with us. How long suffering my mother must have been. He never came for the whole time but would pitch up for a few days, usually without any luggage. More than once I remember us rushing to the nearest town for Ivor to stock up on underpants. When I was about eleven, we had our first holiday abroad. Dad drove us, via the Cherbourg ferry, to south Brittany.pschitt[1] This was adventuring! We were like the Larkin family from H.E. Bates’ The Darling Buds of May. Ivor followed on by train and we met him at the station. He arrived without a bag: situation normal.

One evening, we went to a self-service cafe. We had settled down with our food but Ivor was still at the counter. He picked up a bottle of fizzy drink and shouted over the heads of the mainly French clientele, to ask us if we’d like some Pschitt – although his pronunciation left something to be desired. He and Dad were off again, giggling like school boys. My sister and I only got the joke once I’d started attending secondary school and my education included profanities.

There is a last Ivor-ism I must leave you with.  All his working life he commuted to the City of London, to a job in insurance which he hated. He’d try finding amusement during his journey to make the day more bearable. His train stopped at stations along his route, one of which was Leatherhead, in Surrey. In those days, before digital announcements, the guard would shout the destination from the platform. Upon hearing “Leatherhead” shouted for the umpteenth time, Ivor pushed down the window, leant out and shouted back “Fishface!”

A couple of days ago, I googled the derivation of the insult, “Fishface.” One of the answers claimed that the expression had originated in Leatherhead. Ivor would be so proud.

As we grow up, parents become a source of embarrassment: it’s a fact of life, happens to us all. Somehow, eccentric aunts and uncles bypass this stage and remain as they’ve ever been – accepted for their foibles. I hope that one day someone somewhere will regard me as their eccentric aunt. I’m working on it.

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