Cats and other pets.

 

When we moved to Golborne Road we left behind Tom, the cat we had at Priory Grove.  Nana had asked if she could keep him as she’d be on her own otherwise.  As it turned out this wasn’t the case.  Aunty Mick and Uncle Frank gave up their flat further along the road and moved in with her, Nana upstairs and them downstairs.

It wasn’t long before we acquired another cat.  It was 1952 and Coronation year.  Tensing Norgay, nicknamed Tiger, had been one of the first to scale Mount Everest.  One morning Dad found a skinny tabby kitten sheltering in the doorway of his shop.  Despite an ad placed in the shop window no-one ever claimed him so we kept him and he became Tiger Tensing.  Unfortunately we only had him a short while as he was a sickly little thing and contracted cat flu, against which there was no vaccination sixty years ago.  Antibiotics failed to arrest the progress of the disease and he was in dreadful respiratory distress so Mum and Dad made the decision to have him put to sleep.  I wasn’t told this at the time, just that he had gone on holiday.

Shortly after this Bobby came into my life and was to remain part of it right through my childhood and teenage years.  He was a tabby and white kitten who grew into a large, placid cat.  We were best buddies and he’d sleep with me at night, his front paws wrapped round my neck, purring and dribbling (him, not me!)  He was a very tolerant cat and endured being dressed up in doll’s clothing, being a patient when I was playing nurses and being pushed around in a pram.  He seemed to sense when I was unhappy and would come and cuddle up to me and lick away my tears.

I had joined the Kensington Kitten and Neuter Cat Club which, each year, held a big cat show at the Horticultural Society Hall .  Bobby always did well in the domestic classes and one year won a cup for best senior shorthair cat.  I was thrilled as I knew he was beautiful and delighted someone else also thought so.  I was approached by an American woman who asked if he was for sale as she’d never seen such a homely cat.  I took this as a compliment until I arrived home and learnt from my parents that “homely” has a different connotation in American English.  I was also interviewed and we had our photo taken but the newspaper clipping was lost over the years.

One time I saw a cat in the garden which seemed to be acting strangely and staggering so I called out for Dad.  As we approached the cat we saw that someone had tied tin cans onto its tail and the lower section was very swollen.  Dad told me to stand back and threw a towel over the cat to catch it.  It was taken straight to the PDSA as it was in a bad way.  The vet examined it and gave a diagnosis that the tail was gangrenous and the infection had spread up the cat’s spinal cord.  The only kindness was to put it to sleep.

Once a hedgehog  found its way into our backyard.  How it arrived is a mystery as the small concrete yard was surrounded by a brick wall about three foot high surmounted by a wire fence.  He became very tame and would come running when I called, “Harry, Harry”   I was able to hold him and rub his tummy without him curling into a protective ball.  Unfortunately we didn’t know that bread and milk was an unsuitable diet  and one day found him dead under a bush.

Up Kensal Road was a pet shop.  As well as food and toys it also had tanks full of goldfish, tropical, tadpoles and newts including the now protected Great Crested newts.  There were also cages with rabbits, puppies and kittens. I was a frequent visitor to see what was new.

When we moved into 19 Golborne Rd I had a bedroom of my own which I proceeded to fill with pets and books.  I had a vivarium with a variety of newts in my bedroom.  One of the Great Crested newts  used to climb out and make its way onto the bed, then trek across my face in the morning.  They were fed a diet of fish food and ants’ eggs.  One day I noticed one of the Common Newts  was missing.  I checked the lid.  That was secure.  I lifted it off and started moving pebbles and grasses to see if it was hiding anywhere.  My activity disturbed one of the Great Cresteds.  I saw it had something sticking out of its mouth.  It was a tail.  Carefully holding the newt I pulled the protruding object.  It was the missing newt!  Now covered in slime and digestive juices it was very dead.

The basement rooms in 19, like those in 21 weren’t habitable but very suitable for my growing menagerie.  One of my pets was a rabbit that had either had a broken back at one time or was born with a deformed spine.  Although not actually lame, it moved with a strange sideways gait and may have been in some discomfort  as it would frequently inflict a painful bite if handled incautiously.

I acquired a tortoise from the pet shop.  It also lived in the basement and was a source if interest until winter when it withdrew into its shell.  We assumed it was hibernating until a foul smell began to permeate the basement and Mum noticed that fluid was oozing out of the tortoise’s shell.

St. Mary’s school had stick insects in one of the classrooms.  During school holidays they would come home with me.  I would go up the Little Rec with a pair of scissors and cut off twigs from the rose bushes when the park keeper wasn’t looking to feed them.  One time one of the young ones shed its exoskeleton and  kept it for several months on the mantelpiece.

When we lived at 21 our next door neighbour Bert Cross would “Miaou” when he heard us calling Bobby in for the night.  We’d had Bobby a couple of years when we were offered another kitten.  This was a pure black boy who became Mum’s cat.  In a moment of mischief Mum and Dad decided to call him Bertie much to Bert’s wife’s amusement.  He was a lovely cat but like Tiger, contracted cat flu.  Fortunately he did survive the infection but it left him with chronically infected sinuses and a distressing habit of sneezing and propelling yallery-greenery strings of snot out of his nose.  One of my enduring memories is of finding dried up cat snot on furniture and curtains.  He nevertheless lived to a good age and was adopted by one of dad’s customers when we emigrated.

In Hazelwood Crescent, behind Hazelwood Towers, was a mews  with stabling for the totters horses and lockups for them to store their carts and goods. I became friendly with one of the totters and, horse mad from a young age, I would hang around after school, waiting for them to return from a day’s rag and bone collecting .  I’d help unharness the pony, groom him, feed him and clean his harness.  This was six days a week and on Sunday, their day off, I’d be rewarded for my work by being allowed to ride up and down the cobblestone mews for about half an hour. It was bareback riding and consequently I developed a good sense of balance which helped when I started having proper riding lessons.

 For my eleventh birthday Mum and Dad agreed to give me riding lessons.  I went to a riding school at Fortune Green, run by an Irishman.  It was in Ebenezer Mews off Hermitage Lane.  There were about twelve stalls.  Pat lived in Knebworth where he had another riding school and where the town horses would go for a month’s break in the summer time as it had fields for them to enjoy but would spend a couple of days a week at Ebenezer Mews.  To get there I caught the 28 bus from outside Westbourne Park Station.  I’d set off on a Saturday in my jodhpurs and boots and be subject to cat calls all the way to the bus stop. “Oi darlin’ yer fergot yer ‘orse” being one of the politer comments but I didn’t care.  I was going to spend the day with horses!

There were two young women, Shirley and Hazel, who ran the stables for Pat.  Looking back they were woefully underpaid.  Hazel got £3 pw for working at least a twelve hour day and even longer during summer when there were lessons during the evenings.   It was their love of horses that made them stay.  From Ebenezer Mews we would head, in convoy, up West Heath Rod, past Spaniards Inn, of Dick Turpin fame, onto Hampstead Heath.  Beginners and nervous riders would have a lead rein attached to their mount’s halter and either Shirley or Hazel would hold it to prevent the pony taking its own line back to the stables. 

Once on the heath there were well defined tracks to follow and small jumps that had been put up.  The riding school had no arena so all instruction took place along these tracks.  Looking back it was pretty basic.  You were taught how to mount and once you were able to rise to the trot, stop and turn your pony you were considered safe to be let off the lead.  I mastered the trot on my second lesson so was on my own quite early on.

 The horses were a mixed lot.  My first mount was a little strawberry roan mare called Wendy who was used for beginners.  From her I moved onto Bob, a tall, rangy, raw boned bay pony who became a special favourite.  Pat’s own horse, Rocket, a fiery chestnut thoroughbred mare had a loose box but all the others only had stalls about eight foot by four foot and these were three deep.  The horses and ponies had to be backed out as there wasn’t room to turn them around and led past the horses in the front stalls.  It wasn’t uncommon to be kicked as you led your mount out and you soon learnt to either be quick on your feet or to lead from the offside so there was a horse between you and a flying pair of heels!

Diamond was a piebald Shetland pony and a favourite of everyone.  She had learnt to beg for treats and consequently was quite spoilt.  She could deliver quite a  nip if she didn’t get a sugar cube.  I’d become quite a proficient rider with a strong seat so was often put on Jumbo, a small grey pony with a nasty habit of bucking off his riders.  I was to carry a whip and give him a “smart one” every time he tried to duck his head and up with his heels.  One ride he tried fifty six times to get me off and eventually gave up in disgust when I was on him although he wasn’t above putting in a sly one with anyone else.  There was also Blaze, black with the eponymous white streak down his face.  After Bob was moved permanently to Knebworth he was replaced by Lady.  Lady was a skewbald of about 15hh with a very large head for her build and a bad habit of biting when being groomed.  For some reason she and I got on well and I became one of her regular riders.  Another of my favourites was Blarney, a very big, grey Irish Hunter type.  Because of his size he was mostly used for adult riders but he was one of my charges when it came to unsaddling between rides, grooming and feeding.  If I was lucky I would occasionally be allowed to ride him.

Rides were for an hour and each animal was expected to do three consecutive outings then have an hour off with bridle removed and girth loosened  for lunch.  We unpaid helpers would be at the stables from 9am until at least 6pm and, if we were lucky, might get an occasional  free ride if there was a mount going spare.  As well as taking care of the ponies when they returned and making sure they didn’t need a drink we were expected to muck out the stalls, fill hay nets,  make up feeds according to the charts on the office wall and clean tack.  We were also despatched at intervals to buy bacon butties and flasks of tea for Hazel and Shirley as there were no facilities at the mews.  I don’t know what toilet arrangements they had as there were no conveniences.  I rather suspect a quiet corner of one of the back stalls might have served the purpose.

Another of Dad’s customers gave me a baby pigeon that he’d found.  It was still very young and lacking flight feathers so I hand reared it and gave it “flying lessons” by letting it perch on my hand and quickly raising it up and down so it had to flap its wings to maintain its balance.  This unorthodox approach seemed to work and soon it was flying independently around my bedroom and gaily pooping on unprotected surfaces.  Eventually the time came for its solo flight.  I opened my bedroom window and put out my hand.  It took flight and disappeared in the direction of the Seventh Feathers never to be seen again.

After I’d passed the Eleven Plus I attended the Sacred Heart High School for Girls at Hammersmith.  One day I found a baby thrush in the grounds and brought it home to hand rear using very similar techniques to that with the pigeon. I called it Pippa.  When it was time to release it I again opened the window.  It flew in a small circuit and back indoors again.  Each day the circuit grew larger until finally it too didn’t return.  Next summer however, one day I was sitting in my room with the window open and a thrush landed on the windowsill, sat for a moment, looked around, gave one loud and beautiful song then flew away.  This happened for four successive summers.  I like to think this was her way of thanking me for caring for her.

Our last Golborne Road cat was Gunga Din.  He had been rescued by the PDSA after having been badly mistreated by his previous owners.  He was only a very young kitten and must have suffered a great deal as he was very traumatised and had an uncertain temperament, turning on you suddenly and biting hard.  He was a beautiful red tabby longhaired cat.  The vet thought he was probably a purebred Persian but of course he had no papers.  He was a big cat and , as I had Bobby and Mum had Bertie, became Dad’s special boy. Dad had a fondness for the writings of Rudyard Kipling and would frequently quote chunks of his poetry hence the cat’s name. He was a strong character and ruled the two older cats with an iron paw although he was never aggressive with them.

One evening we were sitting down to dinner.  Mum had cooked steak, chips and fried onions, Dad’s favourite meal.  We were just about to sit down when there was a red flash across the table.  Dad looked down at his plate to see his steak had disappeared and Gunga was in the corner busily bolting down his prize!

  He was the only one of our cats to come to New Zealand with us as Bobby was sixteen, Bertie thirteen and both too old to travel that distance then survive the six week quarantine period that was then in force.  Gunga arrived in fine fettle having spent much of the boat trip in one of the sailor’s cabins.  He was flown down from Wellington where he was quarantined to Christchurch where we had settled and marked his arrival in typical form by taking off and going missing for over a month.  He was eventually located in a suburb on the way back to the airport.  Had he taken one look and decided it wasn’t for him?  Who knows?   I only wish I’d done the same thing. I could have been spared so much pain and unhappiness if I’d listened to my instincts and caught the first plane back home again. He lived for another eight years and quietly died in his sleep.

More Montana Cottage

 

Although I lived in Stockwell until I was six  most of my memories are of isolated incidents, fleeting and incomplete.  Perhaps my earliest is of sitting in my wooden highchair playing with the contents of Mum’s button box and the scraps of fabric she and Nana would use to make patchwork quilts, or to patch existing bedding and clothes as rationing was still in force for some seven years after the conclusion of the war and many things hard to buy.  The mantra “Make do and mend” was obeyed. 

One of the items that particularly fascinated me was a scrap of purple velvet.  I was attracted as much by its deep sensuous colour as the different textures of obverse, lush and tactile, and reverse smooth and silken.  I can still summon up the feel of it under my infantile fingers.

Purple was (and still is) my favourite colour and my addiction to it caused an incident which my mother frequently related.  Grandad Ireland used to give me his ha’pennies and farthings and I had a collection of these in one of the heavy brown paper bags that banks used before the ubiquity of plastic.  Whenever Mum and I went shopping I’d insist on taking this bag with me, tucked into the side of my pushchair.

On this particular day we’d caught the number 2 bus up to Brixton as Mum wanted to visit  Bon Marche.  This was not the chain of cheap women’s clothing shops that today bear that name but the first purpose built department store in Britain.  It was opened in 1877 and named after the store of that name in Paris. It occupied a prime corner position and had large windows filled with displays of goods that most people coud only dream of buying if they had enough points in their ration books.

Inside it was very like “Grace Brothers” in the sitcom “Are you being served” with heavy, glass fronted , wooden counters and uniformed staff waiting for your custom, their wares either on display in the cabinets or neatly packaged and stacked behind.  No such concept as self-service then.  You asked for what you wanted and were shown what the assistant thought you should have.

There were displays, clothing on mannequins striking improbable poses and perhaps an ornament or two  but not the racks and racks of goods one sees in shops today.   As Mum was along the aisle pushing me I looked about me and spotted a mauve feather duster on display.

Immediately I wanted it and stretched out towards it but was secured in my pushchair by straps.  I shouted,  “Want” and pointed to it.  Mum ignored me so I repeated my request.  Again ignored!  I bellowed and started kicking my legs as I was pushed past the display.  Mum hushed me.  I screamed and increased the tattoo with my legs as I screwed round in my seat to see the object of my desire fast disappearing into the distance.

 Now red in the face, screaming at the top of my voice I picked up my bag of small change and hurled it with all my might.  The bag split and coins scattered in all directions.  The supercilious looking shopgirls were suddenly spurred into action.  Scrabbling on hands and knees they rooted under counters and scurried across the floor retrieving the coppers.  Eventually all were collected and returned to Mum who left the shop red faced and apologetic for the behaviour of her appalling offspring and without making her purchase.

She always concluded the story by stating that she could have happily walked off and left me in the shop  had she not been fearful of police prosecution and a grilling by Nana as to my whereabouts.

The garden was my domain.  Montana Cottage had a large back garden and also a more formal front one with, on one side facing the front door , a wrought iron gate flanked by two pillars and on the other, where the coach house stood, high double wooden gates so it was quite safe for me to play outside unsupervised. 

The pathway leading from the front gate to the house was flanked either side by formal flower beds although these were sadly neglected and only grew Golden Rod,  straggly privet bushes and the ubiquitous dandelions and daisies.  I would be given a tin lid which I would fill with dirt and “plant” flowers I’d plucked to make a miniature garden to be presented to Mum, Nana or Aunty Mick if she dropped by.  I also had a lump of chalk and amused myself for hours creating artworks on the flagstones that were the path.

In the back garden Granddad had put up a swing for me in the doorway of the garden shed and I would rock back and forwards enjoying the contrast between the cool darkness of the shed and the sunshine as I flew forward.  There was a dispirited pear tree growing at the back of the garden that occasionally produced hard, gritty, undersized fruit.  I’d try to eat it but the dry sourness and gritty texture defeated me.

Out in the back garden was my little red pedal car and I’d happily race along  the paths, under the wicker arch with the Alexandra Rose growing up it and around a circuit surrounding the remains of the Victorian greenhouse with its sad little grapevine.

Dad had managed to acquire some panes of glass from somewhere and had plans to construct a cold frame to grow lettuce and strawberries.  This day he’d  laid them out to get an idea of what shape it was going to be and had left them on the ground.  I was playing in the garden and saw this interesting material on the ground.  Curious, I jumped on one.  It made a satisfying cracking noise and produced an interesting pattern so I did it to the next… and the next until all were broken.  Dad heard the noise and came rushing over.  I smiled beatifically and pointed.  “Spiders Daddy”  What Dad said was not handed to posterity but Mum said she could see the dust rising from my knickers as he smacked my behind.

In our front room we had a square of Wilton carpet square patterned with geometrical shapes.  These were just right as fields and paddocks for my collection of lead farm animals and I’d happily squat there with the horse family Mummy Mare, Daddy Stallion, Baby Colt Filly and Baby Colt Cob, the swan family Daddy Cob, Mummy Pen and Baby Cygnet.  My collection included a milkmaid crouched over her bucket, a farmer with a lamb tucked under one arm and a crook in the other, a sow lying down feeding a litter of piglets and many more.  The reason I had such an extensive collection was that every Saturday Mum would take me down to the toy shop on Larkhall Lane and buy me one animal until I had collected the complete family.  I had to remember from week to week what the names of male, female and baby of each species.

I don’t remember many dolls.  There was Alice who was a soft skinned baby doll and one I’d had from infancy, a foam rubber black baby who I’d called Little Black Sambio.  I loved Sambio so much I would bite his nose and in time chewed it all away until there was just a gaping void. I kept him until I was twenty and we emigrated when, along with so many other “non-essentials” of family history, old photos, the family bible he was thrown away and passed into history.

Nana and Aunty Mick were both musically talented.  Often they would sit down at the piano in the best parlour and perform duets.  One of Nana’s favourite songs was “Pale hands I love beside the Shalimar” but she was equally happy pounding out “Knees up Mother Brown” or “The boy I love is up in the gallery” immortalised by Marie Lloyd and a music hall favourite.   I was fascinated that these black marks on paper could translate into complicated hand movements and sounds.  One day I found some blank music paper and proceeded to cover it in what I imagined was a tune and presented it for performance.  Aunty Mick and Mum burst out laughing and sang in accord “LA la la la LA, LA…..LA…..LA!  Not at all how I imagined it would sound and, strangely whatever I composed in future sounded exactly the same so I finally gave up.  Carol King you don’t know how lucky you are!!!

Nana’s parents had been quite well off despite having married very young and produced thirteen children of which Nana was the last.  In a time when most working class people rented they had owned several properties in either  Smedley  Street or Brooklands Street, Stockwell.   In most censuses William Nicholls is described as being a railway labourer but on Nana’s marriage certificate he has become a financier and Nana said that at one time he was a pawnbroker with a shop somewhere in Battersea.

My great grandmother  Harriet lived with Nana until her death of “senile decay” in 1914.  As a result Nana had many of Harriet’s household effects including an alabaster bust of the young Queen Victoria which stood on a plinth just inside the front door, a beautiful set of hand painted Copeland comports and fruit bowls, Staffordshire willow pattern tea service and much more that had either been wedding presents of acquired during her marriage.  They were displayed in a tall mahogany wall cabinet in the front parlour and I loved to look at them.  She also had several jugs with motifs on them.  One stated “Better to do one thing than dream all things” a sentiment with which I profoundly disagree.  There were also books from her childhood, Charles and Mary Lamb’s “Tales from Shakespeare” , Hone’s Everyday Book, The Poetical Works of Alfred Lord Tennyson” and one of my favourites “The Popular Recreator” with its suggestions for wholesome activities for young people. I was allowed to look at these as long as I was careful and didn’t tear or bend the pages.

There were my own books.  “The Weeping Pussy Willow” which drove Mum to frustration as I cried every time she read it to me and next night begged her to read it again, BBC Children’s Hour Annual with articles by Uncle Mac, “the Little Lame Prince”  another tear producer and of course Noddy with his Toyland friends and politically incorrect naughty Golliwogs.

During the war Mum and Nana had fed many cats who were victims of the conflict.  Either because their owners had been evacuated or their houses had been bombed and the occupants killed. They would beg from the local butchers and fishmongers any scraps that could not be utilised for human consumption and boil these up with porridge then put this out in the backyard for the cats.  At one time they were feeding about thirty but by the time I came along were down to just one, Bill Badger, a nervy black and white cat who would scratch me if I tried to touch him.  Like so many humans in the post war period he was probably suffering from shell shock and the last thing he wanted was an overenthusiastic hug from a toddler.

After his demise Mum went up to Brixton market and bought a ginger kitten who was given the unoriginal name of Tom.  Tom was taken, at the appropriate age, to the local PDSA to be neutered.  It was not the quick and easy operation that cats undergo today and poor Tom was unwell for about a week afterwards.  Whehe from the actual surgery or the anaesthetic I don’t know but it made Mum suspicious of getting any other cat “doctored”in future.

Tom was the first kitten I’d ever had and I would sit under the large kitchen table and play with him for ages. One way and another I spent a lot of time under the kitchen table.  Although  as born  six months after the end of WW2 there must have been some intrauterine influence as every time I heard an aeroplane I would hide under the table and cry until it a passed over.  Mum later told me that, during the war, she had a mattress under the table and would go to sleep on that hen the air raid warnings went off rather than pack up and go down the Anderson shelter despite the anxiety and pleading of Nana and my aunts.

Mum’s elder sister Maud, who preferred to be called Mick, and her husband Frank lived at 23 Priory Grove and further along at 43 was Mum’s first cousin Molly, her husband Sid and my cousin Christine some eight months my senior.  They were later had a son, Colin, about five years younger than me.  Colin was born profoundly deaf and, from a young age, showed multiple behavioural problems which were attributed to the frustration of being unable to communicate properly.

Mick and Frank remained childless from choice and I thought they were a very glamorous couple compared to Mum and Dad.  Mick used to tell people her name should have been Michelle after a French girl her dad had fallen in love with during WWI but Nana wouldn’t let her be christened with that name.  She was Alice Alexandra Maud and the story was a fabrication as Grandad Ireland was exempt from active service because, as a master builder, he was seen to be employed in an essential occupation.  Interestingly Grandad Martin was also exempt from active service on the same grounds.  He was a valet in the Army and NavyClub and also seen to be performing an essential service!

Because of their childless state Mick and Frank were able to run a small car and took overseas holidays in Spain long package holidays became the norm.  Mick, tall with dark wavy hair and flashing brown eyes and skin that tanned easily had an exotic appearance compared to her two younger, grey eyed, mousy haired siblings.  She took after Nana’s side of the family, the Nicholls,  but  Mum and Gwen favoured the Irelands who tended towards sandy hair and fair skin.

They were also competitive ballroom dancers and had many cups and medals.   Mick had a wardrobe full of glamorous ball gowns and Frank was the epitome of elegance in his tails.  He was a spare, slim man and not unlike Fred Astaire in looks.  Because of their dancing they were friends with Bob Garganico who ran a dancing school in Richmond and bandleader Victor Silvester.  Frank was several years older than Mick and when they were courting rode a motor bike.  Nana and Grandad initially disapproved of him and Nana called him “That wild young man” but  his intentions were honourable and he and Mick had a long happy marriage.

During WW2 Frank also was exempt military service (is there a pattern developing here?) but he enrolled as a fireman and worked down on the South Coast in some of the worst conditions of the war.  Mick stayed in London and, like my Mum, worked on the fire engines during the London blitz after they had finished their day jobs.  Mum dislocated both her thumbs pumping the fire pumps which were attached to the water mains.  She said that when a house had received a direct hit they had to do a body count and try and identify the dead.  Often it was a means of counting limbs and trying to assess if it was  male or female.

They were lucky that Montana Cottage was never hit as a little further up the street several houses had been and were replaced by prefabs as the rapidly erected replacement dwellings were called.  Although supposedly temporary, prefabs were so well designed and contained all the mod-cons of the day so people who were rehoused in them lived in considerably better conditions than those who hadn’t been bombed as they had a bathroom and inside toilet and their own garden.

Around the corner from Priory Grove, in Landsdowne Way was a small shop called “The Cabin” which was set it into the wall under the steps up to 1 Priory Grove.  It sold mainly newspapers and sweets and was very tiny with barely enough room for two customers.  It was here Mum went when bubble gum first became available after the war, although US serviceman always had an ample supply when over here during the war.  She bought home several of the yellow and red wrapped  packets of “Dubble Bubble” and we sat and chewed and blew.  Mum and Dad managed large spheres which made a very satisfactory popping sound when they’d reached their capacity but I was unable to manipulate my tongue to get started.  Eventually I found I could make a bubble of sorts by sucking instead of blowing but Mum made me stop for fear I’d choke.

Nana and Grandad were Church of England and had brought up their three girls in that faith.  Dad was Catholic and he and Mum were married in St Francis de Sales RC church in Larkhall Lane.  They were married November 1939 shortly after war was declared and Dad is in uniform and Mum in a suit.  As part of her marriage vows Mum had to promise that any children of their union would be baptised and brought up in the Roman catholic faith.  Their wedding night was spent sheltering under the kitchen table during an air raid.  Mick and Frank’s wedding took place during the Battle of Britain and their wedding photo shows them gazing up at the sky where a German pilot has parachuted out of his damaged plane.

Although I was baptised Catholic my first six years were spent attending St Andrew’s Stockwell Green and going to their Sunday school.  Once again I only have partial memories.  During Sunday school we would sing “All things Bright and Beautiful” or “Jesus wants me for a Sunbeam” and listen to stories, not always from the Bible.  One, from “The Infancy Gospel of Thomas” relates how Jesus was found on the Sabbath making model sparrows out of clay and being reported to Joseph.  When Joseph reprimanded him, Jesus clapped his hands and the sparrows came to life and flew away.

Another story was of Jesus and the Sunbeam Bridge.  Jesus met some rich children and wanted to play with them but they chased him away so he created a bridge of sunbeams and ran across it.  When the children tried to pursue him across the bridge he caused it to disappear and the children drowned.

At the conclusion of Sunday School we would be given a sticker, slightly larger than a postage stamp with a holy picture and a biblical text on it.  These were glued into exercise books and were possibly the only personal reading books some children had.

At Christmas the Sunday School would put on a Nativity play.  One year I was an angel wearing white robe and wings made of tissue paper stretched over wire frames.  The day of the performance was very cold and Mum had dressed me in a green coat with velvet collar and matching hood and leggings which were fastened to buttons on my Liberty Bodice (was ever a garment so misnamed) The Sunday School teacher was unable to pull these off so I had the dubious fame of being the only angel to ever have green woollen legs.

With Dad being in and out of work and rationing still in force Mum and Nana were hard put to provide nourishing meals and their approach was decidedly creative.  Stomach filling stodge was the order of the day and suet featured in many dishes especially “Spotted Dick” a boiled pudding with raisins in it and “Bacon and Onion Roly Poly” a savoury version with more onion than bacon but very tasty when served with Bisto gravy and mashed potato.   Dad used to enjoy the finely sliced lamb Mum produced for him.  “Lovely tender bit of meat”   but would query how she could afford it.  She would just mumble something about it being a bit Nana had left over and he would tuck in and enjoy his meal.  One day Dad arrived home unexpectedly early from work to find Mum carefully slicing the cheeks of a boiled sheep’s head before disposing of the skull.   She had been able to get the heads off ration but once Dad saw where his lovely tender bit of meat came from he could never eat it again.

Children were entitled to extra rations, especially milk which came powdered in large yellow and brown tins that bore the name “Klim” and was an import from USA.  We also were given concentrated orange juice that came in medicine bottles and tasted amazing.

Eating out was a great treat as ration books still had to be produced and points removed for each item but there were many places where you could go.  The ABC and Lyon’s tea rooms and the British Restaurants, set up during the war to provide cheap nourishing food for the populace.  Also our local pie and mash shop where you could also get stewed eels and “likker” a bright green, parsley flavoured gravy.  One of Dad’s aunts had married a Swiss Pierre de Preux who was head waiter at Lyon’s  Corner House in Oxford Street and occasionally we went there for high tea. He would ensure we had a slap up meal and somehow not require any ration points for it.  A precocious reader, I would pore over the menu savouring the unfamiliar terms.

 One time I saw a drink called a Pussyfoot.  Anything feline, then as now, attracted me and I decided I wanted one.  Mum and Dad explained it was not a suitable drink for a little girl but, like the mauve feather duster episode, I had made my mind up.  Uncle Pierre quickly intervened when he saw the tears welling up and the lower lip starting to turn down.  He hurried away and soon came back bearing a glass of bright orange liquid.  I took an anticipatory sip imagining some fantastic nectar but to my immense disappointment it was nothing more than orange cordial. Many years later I discovered the Pussyfoot was actually a potent rum based cocktail and totally unsuitable for a little girl.

 

 

Encounters with Dirty Old Men

Despite being a very rough area with a large population of “working girls” and out of work , or poorly paid, men who were ready with their fists there was a curious sense of honour and safety in 50s and 60s Golborne Road. In many ways I think the area had the same ethos as the Kray’s East End of the same period although it was a less closed community and, I don’t think, had such organised crime.
On one occasion, when I was about nine, I was waiting at the bus stop opposite Westbourne Park station for the 31 bus to take me up to Queensway ice rink. I was standing at the stop with my ice skates slung over my shoulder. Not the white ones I coveted after having read Noel Streatfield’s eponymous book but a black pair bought from a shop on the corner of Portobello Rd and Oxford Gardens that dealt in secondhand sporting goods.
As I stood there dreaming of performing a perfect bracket or backward glide I became aware of something making contact with the seat of my trousers and massaging my buttock. I turned my head and glimpsed, standing behind me, a dark skinned, turbaned man who had come into Dad’s shop a few times. As I turned the sensation stopped but started up again once I was looking ahead. I shuffled forward in the queue and had a momentary respite but then I felt it again. I lifted my hand, grabbed the toe of my skate and drove it backwards with all my force feeling a satisfactory “Thud” as the protruding metal blade made contact. Just then the bus arrived and I scrambled thankfully on board making sure to sit next to an older woman.
I only saw the man once more a week or so later and he was a sorry sight. Broken nose, smashed teeth and “two lovely black eyes” as the old music hall song goes. During the week someone pushed a scrap of paper through the door of 21 with the legend, “We take care of our own” inscribed on it in pencil.
My parents had no idea what it meant and I never told them. Although the experience had been unpleasant I was very innocent and completely unaware that I had been sexually assaulted until I was well into adulthood.
My sexual innocence buffered me on yet another occasion when I was about eleven or twelve. It was the summer holiday of my first year at the Sacred Heart and I was immensely proud of my gym shorts (although divided skirt would have been a better description as they were voluminous, wide legged garments with an internal pocket for ones hanky)
I had gone to the Horse of the Year Show at White City, wearing my shorts, to watch my heroes Pat Smythe and Alan Oliver compete. During an intermission I left the arena and was wandering around the stables, programme in hand, hoping to catch a glimpse of one of them and perhaps gain an autograph.
Stable doors were half open and it was possible to look in and see the horses. One, a tall chestnut with a wide blaze and four white stockings, caught my attention and I stood on tippy toe looking at him. As I was talking to him and trying to encourage him a voice behind me made me jump and turn. “Do you like him?”, a man asked. I nodded. “He’s my horse, would you like to go in and pat him?” Again I nodded.
He pulled back the bolt and ushered me in. The horse stood in the corner and looked at us. “What’s his name?” I asked. “Just then the horse decided he was going to urinate, grunted, straddled and pumped out copious amounts of fluid. “Big Ben”, said the man. He pointed to the long fleshy snake through which the horse was peeing. “That’s why I call him Big Ben”
I was puzzled. I’d been to Westminster on a school trip and Big Ben looked nothing like the thing between the horse’s legs. “Have you seen your daddy’s one?”, he continued. Now I really was puzzled. What did the man mean? “Do you know what Daddy does to Mummy with his one?”
I must have looked blank because he changed the subject. “Would you like to ride him?” Again I nodded. “If you want to be a good rider you have to have strong muscles” He moved closer. “I need to feel your muscles to see if you are strong enough”
The man put his hand up the leg of my shorts and started squeezing my buttock. He had got very red in the face and his breath was staccato. He was making funny jerky movements with his lower body. I started to feel uncomfortable as his hand began to move round between my legs.
Just then footsteps crunched outside and the sound of people’s voices. The man pulled his hand away rapidly and straightened up. “Sounds like the next event’s on. Better get back and watch it. Come back later and I’ll give you a ride” He hurried over to the door and looked out then left rapidly, disappearing down an alleyway between the rows of stables. I patted the horse and secured the stable door thinking it strange that he hadn’t shut it when he left, went back and watched the rest of that day’s programme.
Although I didn’t know what had happened I felt disturbed by the encounter and decided I didn’t like the man. How dare he say my Daddy had a nasty body part like Big Ben’s. I decided then and there I wasn’t going to meet him afterwards and he could keep his ride!

St. Mary’s Catholic School, East Row.

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St. Mary’s was a very different experience from my time at Wornington Road.  It was a much smaller school and exercised a far more autocratic regime.  Sister Mary Austin was a much feared and much respected head mistress.  Small and bustling in her black habit and white wimple, she had the uncanny ability to suddenly appear just as you were thinking of misbehaving.  Divine  intervention?  We children suspected this was well the case as we were frequently told that God was always watching us.

In my first year Sister Mary Monica was our class teacher.  Young, quietly spoken and gentle in her ways she punished rarely, preferring instead to explain that our behaviour was hurting Jesus who had died for our sins.  The worst punishment I can recall receiving from her was being made to stand in the corner after I was caught talking in class.  Unfortunately her reluctance to physically punish and instead appeal to our fear of offending Jesus had the effect of giving me a severe guilt complex.

I can remember, on one occasion, sucking a sweet as I was on my way to confession.  It was,  of course, a total misconduct to eat or drink in the church building.  I had forgotten that I had the sweet tucked in my mouth and knelt to await my turn for confession.  Suddenly I realised what I had done, a cold, gut-wrenching fear gripped me and, expecting a thunderbolt to strike me, fled from the church as my bowels opened in sheer panic.  I then had the humiliating experience of having to walk back from Middle Row, down Appleford Street back to Golborne Road and home.  Then having to explain to Mum that I’d messed myself but could not bring myself to explain why it had happened.  Luckily Mum was pretty prosaic about it and just said that , “Accidents do happen”

Nonetheless I was very happy at St. Mary’s and my end of year report for 1954 stated “Gwendolen is a bright, intelligent child and has made marvellous progress in her work, though her writing could be much better.”  My writing has not improved much in sixty years, still resembling the work of a drunken spider.

St. Mary’s was the first school where I had to wear a uniform.  It was a grey pleated skirt, deep golden blouse and vermilion cardigan.  I was one of the few children whose parents could afford full uniform and as a consequence was always placed in the front row when we had school concerts.  Regrettably a complete uniform was not matched with any musical ability.  Teachers had long accepted my lack of musical ear and instructed me to just mouth the words and not actually sing.  Mum and Dad were both aware of this and we would spend the entire song desperately trying not to catch each other’s eye and burst into giggles.

My second year at St. Mary’s was under the auspices of Miss Kenny.  She had a reputation of being extremely strict and standing no nonsense from any of her pupils.  Fortunately she seemed to take a liking to me and I don’t recall any punishments.

Under the 1906 Education Act the Local Education Authorities were empowered to provide free school meals  which was extended, in 1921, to the provision of milk also.  In 1946 ‘Red’ Ellen Wilkinson, the first female Minister of Education, saw the Free Milk Act into law. This legislation provided free milk to all British schoolchildren.  It had been recognised in 1937 that there was a link between malnutrition and academic underachievement.  Consequently each and every child in Britain was to receive a daily one third of a pint of milk while at school.

When I was at St Mary’s there was a graded system of payment for the “free” school meals depending on how many children in a family were at the school.  I think it was one shilling per week if there was only one child, 10d for a second child and 8d per child thereafter.  Meals were basic, an unspecified meat stew, macaroni cheese (how I loved the burnt bits that adhered to the side of the tray), sausages and always, on Friday, fish of some form, all accompanied with overboiled greens and lots of spud. 

There was always a bulky, substantial dessert;  treacle pudding, apple sponge, rice pudding, semolina  or the hated “snot and bogey” as we called tapioca.  The food was cooked at a central kitchen and delivered by van in the late morning.  Delivery always elicited the question of what was on today’s menu.  Not that it was a menu.  Only one option and you were stood over by the teacher on dining room duty to make sure you cleaned your plate.  Many of the children relied on school dinner as the only real food they had and it was easy enough to pass something I disliked to someone who wasn’t quite so fussy when the teacher’s back was turned.

Milk arrived early in the morning and it was the task of “milk monitors” a responsible and much envied role, to carry in the crates and stack them by the surround of the large open fire in the corner of the classroom until morning break.  In summer the bottles remained cool but in winter, with the fire stacked high and throwing out fierce heat just a short distance, they were often thickened and suspiciously malodorous come mid-morning.

 Since infancy I had been unable to drink raw milk, vomiting profusely if I was given any.  Because the free milk scheme was compulsory Mum had to write a note every term asking for me to be excused from drinking the milk.  Unfortunately either she forgot to write it or I would forget to take it with me so the first couple of days of term I had to endure being forced to drink milk, gagging as I did so and then the embarassment of heaving it up only minutes later.  I do recall one time facing Miss Kenny as my gut revolted and having the satisfaction of coating her Donegal Tweed skirt with a thick, white, mucous deposit.

As well as school milk we also received a daily teaspoon of malt and a tablespoon full of concentrated orange juice.  Malt was dispensed from a large tin.  One spoon did for all of us.  Some children loved its taste (I was not one of these) and would try and get a second helping.  There was also a (un)healthy black market for the spooonful you hadn’t swallowed.  It’d be howked out and given to someone else who did like it rather like a bird feeding its young.  But woe betide you if you were caught performing this avian practice.  A joint dressing down and smacks all round.

Our health was taken very seriously as we were “The Future”  There were regular visits from the school dental nurse to extract milk teeth or make small fillings.  She had a portable drill that required a foot operated  turntable to make the drill revolve.  Consequently its rhythm varied depending on her level of concentration.  She didn’t use any analgesia and her visits were dreaded.

  My parents were unhappy at the condition of my teeth and enrolled me with a private dentist.  Dad’s father had been in service and, on his marriage, he and my grandmother were concierges for a block of service flats in Portland Place.  It had been Dad’s role as a youngster to collect the boots the “gentlemen” would put outside their doors of a night, polish and return them before the morning.  Portland Place was then where the Dental Association had its headquarters and there were many dental practices there.  One of them had been a resident of the service flats so Dad phoned and asked if he would take me as his patient.  Consequently I had orthodontic treatment that many of my contemporaries did not and ended up with a decent set of teeth.

The other regular visitor was the School Health Nurse aka Nitty Nora as one of her unenviable tasks was to search children’s heads for parasites.  She had a steel comb (nicknamed the Nit Rake)and a jar of pungent disinfectant. The comb would be plunged into jar then drawn through your hair scraping the scalp often to the point of drawing blood.  She would peer, hoping to see tell-tale white eggs adhering to hair follicles.  If you were uncontaminated you stood on one side of the class but if you had an infestation you stood on the other, your name was taken and a letter written to your parents proclaiming you were unclean and ordering treatment to be commenced.  Kerosene was a standard treatment to kill head lice and their eggs and for days after Nitty Nora’s visit the school stunk of it.

It was at St. Mary’s that I met the girl who was to become my best friend and rival.  Maureen lived in Cricklewood , quite some distance away.  I was never sure why her parents chose to send her to St. Mary’s unless it was the closest catholic school but that seems unlikely as there were several Catholic churches in Cricklewood and Kilburn and the area itself favoured by the Irish navvies who were engaged in rebuilding post war London.  It was immortalised in the song , “MacAlpine’s Fusiliers”  “Oh the craic was good up in Cricklewood and you couldn’t keep us out of The Crown”

Maureen and I were both voracious readers and seen by the teachers as being “gifted”  End of year exams brought out our competitive spirit and intense curiosity as to who would come first in class.  Invariable it was Maureen who pipped me at the post.  Overall my subject marks were slightly higher but her handwriting was much neater and her marks for that much higher than mine which clinched her place at the top of the class.

Other friends were Ann who sat next to me in class and fascinated me as she always had one hand up her knickers during lessons, the Maloney girls who lived in Hazelwood Crescent and Sheila Ryan who lived in Edenham Street.

Reading was always encouraged by the teachers but, for some reason, we were always warned against Enid Blyton.  Miss Roche, who taught me in Junior 3 and 4 said it was because she only used a very limited vocabulary and had “poor style” but I suspect they were worried in case we were inspired by the adventures of the Famous Five (how I identified with George!) and the Secret Seven and tempted to emulate them.  Joyce Lankester  Brisley was a favourite writer and her “Milly-Molly-Mandy” tales were often read in class.  I also enjoyed the “Bunchy” series and “Marigold in Godmother’s House”  Bowdlerised versions of classics were read and Charles and Mary Lamb’s rewriting of Shakespeare’s plays.

Various organisations held competitions which we were encouraged to enter.  RoSPA was one and the RSPCA another that I remember.  The subject for the RSPCA essay was “What would you do if you found an injured animal”  I wrote a long essay, expounding at length about the need not to cause further injury and to keep the animal quiet and calm, either taking them to a vet as soon as possible or getting the RSPCA to collect it. 

Much to my surprise and pleasure I was a prizewinner and for my efforts received a copy of Henry Williamson’s “Tarka the Otter” with beautifully engraved illiustrations.  It was probably not the best book for me as I cried bitterly at the description of his death in a struggle with the hound Deadlock.  It had a strong influence on my outlook and made me question the morality of all kinds of cruelty towards animals.

The second year I entered the topic was about whether it was cruel for animals to be part of a circus.  I wrote a fanciful account of the exploits of my imaginary cousin who was a vet on the payroll of Billy Smart’s circus.  Unsurprisingly my vivid prose failed to win a prize on this occasion.

There was a groundsman at the school who was responsible for sweeping the playgrounds , cleaning the classrooms and general maintenance. He was a shadowy figure who always wore a brown cotton coat.  One weekend I decided to go up to the school because I’d left something behind when school finished.  I climbed over the fence and was making my way to the classroom when I was suddenly set upon by the groundsman’s fox terrier.  He didn’t bite me but was yapping and nipping at my ankles.  I had always been timid around dogs and panicking, started screaming which excited the terrier even more.  Fortunately the groundsman was close by and called off his dog but it took me years before I felt comfortable again when a dog was nearby.

Once a week our class was taken to Wedlake Baths for swimming lessons.   It was a dark Victorian building that was both a bath house and a swimming pool.  The swimming pool reeked of chlorine and was surrounded by small cubicles where one changed from outer clothing to swimsuits.  The doors of the cubicles could only be locked from the inside and theft from them was quite common unless you kept a close watch.  The pool was notionally divided into  “The Deep End” and  “The Shallow End”.  The latter was about three feet and the other end about six foot.  We beginners entered the shallow end cautiously and spread ourselves out along the wall of the pool, grasping the rail that ran around the pool, interrupted only by steps leading into it.  First lessons were to hold onto the rail and kick out our legs behind us so we were floating.  Once we had mastered this we were encouraged to let go one hand  and then the other.  Once we could float independently we were taught how to propel ourselves in the water from one side to the other, dive under the water to change direction and swim back again.  There were certificates for being able to swim 10, 25 and 50 yards.  Immersion in cold water was never a pleasure for me and , although I did eventually learn how to swim, I only  gained the 10  and 25 certificates.

1957 was my final year at St. Mary’s and, sadly, marked the beginning of the weakening of my friendship with Maureen.  It was the year of the Eleven Plus Exam, the results of  which determined the type of secondary school you would attend.   The Eleven Plus had been introduced in 1944 by the Butler Education Act.  In those days there were two levels of passing Grammar and Central and the unsuccessful children would be allocated places at Secondary Modern or technical schools.  We sat three papers, Maths, English and Intelligence.  Then came the long wait until the results were sent back to the school.  They were read out in front of assembly.  Having a mid-alphabet surname I waited impatiently.  Maureen’s name was read out, she had passed. It seemed like eternity and then my name was called. I had also passed.  I also had won some award for getting the highest marks in the school.

  I couldn’t wait to get home and tell  Mum and Dad.  As soon as school finished I ran all the way home and burst into Dad’s shop with just enough breath to exclaim, “I got a Grammar!”

Passing with high marks meant further decisions had to be made.  Maureen and another friend, Hannah, were going to school in north west London.  My parents had intended for me to go to St. Aloysius at Euston if I got a grammar pass or the Brompton Oratory, where Dad had been a pupil, if I got a lesser pass.  In light of my excellent result Sister Austin persuaded my parents to apply to the Sacred Heart Convent at Hammersmith as they were very particular about taking only the brightest children from contributing schools and it had been some years since a girl from St. Mary’s had been accepted.  The Sacred Heart also had a higher social cachet than St Aloysius and a high percentage of pupils who went on the university.

My parents applied and I went for an interview feeling very overwhelmed and apprehensive but must have made all the right responses as I was accepted and due to start in September 1957.

 

 

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School Days 1952-57 Priory Grove, Wornington Road, St. Mary’s

 

 

My first school, Priory Grove, was literally across the road from Montana Cottage.  A three storey Victorian brick building, it had a high wall separating it from the street and separate “Boys” and “Girls” entrances for the older pupils although the infants all used the same entrance. My mother and her two sisters also attended Priory Grove as they too grew up in Montana Cottage.

I have very few memories of the school but as I was only there for about a year this is, perhaps, understandable. Some of the memories that do stick in my mind are of the celebrations of various events. They all seemed to fall in May for some reason. May Day was celebrated with the erection of a maypole from which hung long, brightly coloured ribbons. Parents and friends were invited to the school in the afternoon and we would dance complicated manoeuvres holding the ribbons , weaving in and out, singing “Somer is icumen in” until they were plaited around the pole or simply a glorious tangled confusion.

Empire Day was May 24th and we little girls would go to school wearing red, white and blue striped hair ribbons and listen to local dignitaries waffling on about Patriotism and The Great British Empire. But then this was in the days before successive Labour governments had given it all away and encouraged reverse colonisation by its subjects. A few days after Empire Day was Oak Apple Day which celebrated the restoration of the monarchy in 1660 when Charles II was invited by parliament to return from exile after the death of Oliver Cromwell. It gets its name from the fact that Charles, as Prince of Wales, avoided capture by parliamentarian troops by hiding in an oak tree.

My cousin Christine also attended Priory Grove but was a year ahead of me and very aware of her senior status. I was a precocious child and always wanted to do what Christine did so when she started to learn to read and write I plagued Mum to teach me too. Consequently I was already reading before I started school.

Discipline was strict and children were regularly smacked on hit on the hand with a ruler for minor infractions such as talking in class or inattentiveness. Major incidents were rare but from time to time two boys would fight in the playground and were hauled up before the head to be caned. A child who was foolish enough to answer back or be rude to a teacher received the same punishment. If you were ill advised to complain to your parents that you’d been smacked you’d most likely get another one to “Teach you not to be cheeky”

There was a drawer full of clothing of various sizes, for both boys and girls. With the strict discipline, children could not excuse themselves when nature called and you had to hang on until break. There was no chance to “go” between classes as one teacher taught all subjects in his or her classroom and there was a seamless transmission from one subject to another. Consequently “accidents” were commonplace and a supply of clean garments a necessity. The soiled ones would be roughly rinsed and then either put out the window and secured between window frame and sill or, in winter, hung over the big iron fireguard in front of the open fire in the corner of the classroom. The smell of urine (or worse) would permeate the room for the rest of the day.

I was only at Priory Grove for just over a year, until we moved to Golborne Road.   My parents enrolled me in Wornington Road, the local council school.  Again I have very few memories, the overpowering one being the victim of ongoing bullying because I dressed and sounded different from the local children.  My other memory is of the annual pageant in which my friend, Helen Brown, played Queen Elizabeth and a boy called Phillip was Sir Walter Raleigh.  My parents removed me from Wornington Road at the end of the year as it was obvious I was unhappy  and was forgetting more than I was learning.

Dad’s mother was Catholic from a line of Irish Catholics and he had been coerced by “the Aunts” to have me baptised in the Catholic church.  Consequently he had me enrolled in St. Mary’s school in East  Row, Kensal Rise despite the fact that he hadn’t been a practising Catholic for years.

St. Mary’s was, in many ways, similar to Priory Grove being a brick Victorian building with separate entrances and playgrounds for boys and girls and classrooms opening off dark corridors.  The main difference was that many of the teachers were nuns and most had Irish accents.

I had had little formal religious education before attending St Mary’s although my grandmother would listen to me recite, “Now I lay me down to sleep.  Ray the Lord my soul to keep” before I went to bed.  She also had a framed text on her kitchen wall that read,

 “When the one great scorer comes to write beside your name.

He writes not if you won or lost but how you played the game” 

For years I pictured God as a celestial version of W.G. Grace complete with shin pads and cricket bat!

I was also  taken to Sunday School at St. Stephen’s C of E church but my only recollections of this are the stickers we would get given each week with a religious motto on them and of being an angel in the Christmas pageant but having to wear a pair of green woollen leggings under my white robe because the Sunday  School teacher couldn’t get them off!

One of the first things I had to do was learn the Catechism in preparation for my First Holy Communion.  It was a small, thin book of questions and answers about the Catholic faith.  The first question was, “Who made me?” to which the answer is “God made me.”   It then went on to ask, “Why did God make me?”, the answer being “To know Him, love Him and serve Him in this world and to be happy with Him in the next.”  In essence the Catechism was a simplified explanation of what Catholics were expected to believe and, to be prepared for First Communion, it was necessary to be able to recite at least part of it to Monsigneur when he visited the school to assess your readiness to be a communicant.

Once you were deemed ready there were rehearsals of the procession of communicants, rehearsals of how you received Communion.  In those days it was just the wafer that was given to the laity and the priest sculling down the wine himself.  We were told that we were to receive the host by sticking out our tongues and the priest would place it on it.  On now account  were we to touch it with our hands, even if (Heaven forbid) it fell off our tongue onto the floor.  Only a priest could handle the Body of Christ and dreadful consequences (although these were never specified) would befall anyone else who did so.

The week before First Communion was our First Confession, a telling of sins, real and imagined, to a priest who sat in an enclosed box with a grille dividing him off from the confessee (is there such a word?  If not I think there should be.)  You would kneel in the pews waiting for the previous person to leave the booth then enter and kneel.  “Bless me Father for I have sinned.  It is my first confession.  You then recited various peccadillos such as eating the last piece of cake without asking, talking in class and suchlike.  At the end of your recitation the priest would pronounce your penance, usually an “Our Father” and ten “Hail Marys” for what were known as Venial (or lesser) sins.  Mortal Sins were the big guys and included such things as failure to attend mass, breaking the fast or “impure” thoughts although, at age 7, I doubt if any of us knew what an impure thought was.

First confession at the age of seven was a comparatively new idea, instituted by Pope Pius X in 1910.  Before that confession was not considered necessary until teens and was only once or twice a year (a spiritual spring clean) rather than the weekly obligation it had become under Pius.

The night before we had to fast from midnight until after we had received Communion so we were very hungry.  Not even a mouthful of water was permitted.  Nothing was to soil the orifice through which the Body of Christ was to enter your own. I was afraid to even brush my teeth in case I inadvertently swallowed some water.

On the great day girls were dressed in white dresses with veils and boys scrubbed and squeezed into dark suits.  For many children these would have been the first new clothes they had ever owned.  Those with older siblings would wear the dress or suit they had used.  My dress was made of satin with a high waist, puffed sleeves and a frilled hem.  The veil was edged in rick rack braid and had crosses in braid on its corners.  My Nana gave me a missal with a white plastic cover to mark the occasion. 

The actual ceremony took place in “Our Lady of the Holy Souls” in Bosworth Road, which was our parish church.  It was another Victorian brick building, built 1881 and consecrated by Cardinal Manning, a highly influential cleric.  Its architect John Francis Bentley also built Westminster Cathedral and it’s possible to see similarities between the two.  Inside the entrance were small recesses containing holy water into which one dipped the index finger of ones right hand and made the Sign of the Cross before entering.  On the left hand side was a small shop which, after mass, sold rosaries, religious pictures, indulgences and other catholic talismans.  Along the south side were large marble tablets with the names of (financial) benefactors inscribed.  We were told that these folk  had paid so that, on their deaths, they would receive all the spiritual benefits of having masses said for them even if there were none.

The most important part of the church was the altar with its rich brocade covering, gold monstrance   and ornately decorated reredos behind it.  The altar was on an elevated dais and separated from the main body of the church by a stout, carved rail.  We all filed in, communicants to the first rows of pews and their families filling  the  ones further back.

Father Ward and Father Long entered from a side door followed by altar boys.  Everyone  stood for the mass to commence.  In the  days pre-Vatican 2 the mass was recited in Latin.  As most people did not know Latin this reinforced the superiority of the priests who spoke “God’s Own Language”  We heard the words and muttered the responses, bobbed and ducked when indicated but really had very little idea of what was being said.  The priest intoned, “In nomine Patris et Filii et Spiritu Sancti” and we said , “Amen”

The priest proceeded through the mass until Communion and we all filed up in our long dresses and dark suits to kneel before the altar rail hands clasped and mouth open tongue extended.  The priest blessed us, mumbled “Corpus Domini nostri  Jesu  Christi custodiat  animam  tuam in vitum aeternam.  Amen” then placed a host on each of our tongues in turn.  I remember how dry my mouth was after my long fast and how the wafer stuck to my tongue necessitating a frantic rubbing of my tongue against my back teeth to free it, hoping no-one noticed as I walked back to my pew.

To my great disappointment I felt no different after receiving the Body of Christ.  No glow of virtue nor sense of communication with The Divine.  No difference whatsoever except for an increasingly dry mouth and a desire to cough to free my throat of the offending wafer which felt as if it had stuck on the way down.  We had had it drummed into us during instruction that, on no account, were we to chew the host.  It had to be swallowed whole.  Mercifully there was only the Absolution to go and then we  heard the wonderful words, “Dominus Vobiscum.  Ite missa est”   The Latin equivalent of “OK mate that’s yer lot.  Sling yer hook.”

After the communion mass there was breakfast in the church hall.  Welcome cups of tea, glasses of virulently coloured cordial, buns and bread and butter.  From there we adjourned to the Little Rec as the Leslie Horniman Pleasance was popularly known.  Box Brownies were produced and snaps taken of little boys and girls doing their best to look holy with hands folded in prayer or arms crossed over their chests and pious expressions on their faces.

It was expected that from now on this pattern would be repeated each weekend for the rest of our lives.  No doubt this was the case for many of that day’s communicants but for me questioning and doubt occurred in my teens and began a gradual disenchantment with religion that culminated in a total scepticism of anything that did not have a logical explanation.

 

 

 

Games, pastimes and books

1950s Golborne Road was essentially a traffic free zone.  Few people owned cars in postwar England and certainly not in as deprived an area as North Kensington.  The few vehicles we did see were the totters’  ponies and cart, the milk cart, men bicycling to work  or the few delivery vans.  Twice a week there  was excitement in the form of the Household Cavalry clattering along Golborne Road on its  way from the barracks in St John’s Wood to Wormwood Scrubs where they performed manoeuvres and exercises with their guns.  Following in their wake were locals with buckets and shovels to scoop up the horses’ droppings.  Not from any desire to keep the road clean but because it was good manure for their little backyard gardens and pots of tomatoes.

Because there was so little traffic children mostly played in the street.  In any event most homes didn’t have enough room for lots of energetic children to be tearing around so weekends and after school would be spent outside in all but the very worst weather.

It was an unwritten rule that boys and girls played separately.  In part I think this was due to the fact that most of the local schools, with the exception of Wornington Road which was built postwar and was “progressive , still ran on Victorian lines with boys and girls having separate entrances and playgrounds but also no boy wanted to be seen as a sissy and their games were often rough and violent.  We girls were frequently warned, “You keep away from those boys” even if the boys in question were, as often happened, the girls’ brothers.

“Cowboys and Indians” was  a favourite.  Cowboys had cap guns and Indians had homemade bows that  fired  twigs or bits of dowelling with sharpened points.  Some boys also had homemade carts, usually a bit of planking attached to a set of pram or bike wheels.  These would be pushed along the middle of the road by one boy, the other steering the wheels with a piece of string attached to the axle.  When sufficient speed had built up the pusher would jump on the back and they’d travel until friction and weight dragged it to a standstill.  There was a deal of skill in being a pusher.  Too fast and you ran the risk of being left behind, if your balance wasn’t right when you leapt onto the cart you’d either fall off or your weight would cause the cart to upend tumbling out both you and the driver.

“Allies” or marbles was a popular game with many esoteric  rules and a language of its own.  Most of the marbles were multi-coloured glass but some were also aggies , made of agate or allies made of alabaster.  A Dobber was a big marble used to hit the smaller ones.  There were also large, frosted glass ones called “bottle washers”.  It was many years before I knew that it was a literal name.  They came from the necks of fizzy drink bottles.  The glass sphere was used to seal the top of the bobble and stop the bubbles escaping.

 To call “quitsies” meant you could stop the game without losing your marbles.  Is this where the expression comes from?  “Keepsies” meant to keep all the marbles one had won.  To start a game one had to “knuckle down” another expression which has passed into everyday terminology.  In this instance it meant to position your hand with your knuckle against the ground preparatory to firing the marble into the ring.  It was taken every bit as seriously as the game of Knock Down or flicking trading cards set up against a wall.  Cigarette manufacturers  would include collectible cards on a variety of themes in the packets.  Cricketers, footballers, war heroes were all represented.  It seemed were more so than others and fierce bartering took place for the rarer ones.

Girls games were relatively more decorous although both sexes played “Tag”, perhaps one of the few games which crossed the gender divide.  We played games with two balls up against the wall. “One, two three  oleary”  To which we’d add, “I saw Bridget Geary, sitting on her bumbaleery, eating squashed tomatoes”  I think the accepted version continued “Four, five six oleary” up to “Ten oleary overball” when you’d have to swap hands catching the balls.

 

Skip rope was another great favourite . Again it had a language of its own, criss cross, side swing, scissors were all different manoeuvres with the rope.  It could be played either on one’s own or with two girls swinging the rope and others jumping.  If there were two swingers, two ropes could be used turning in opposite directions.

Hopscotch was played  on courts marked out with chalk on the pavement.  The most basic court was just numbered from one to nine with “Home” at the end where you could turn to complete the return trip.  Others were more complex with double squares. 

Other games we played were “Oranges and Lemons”, “Simon Says” and “Statues”  Another popular, but less acceptable game, was to knock on someone’s door and run away before they answered it.  The dare was to see how long you could stand in front of the door before scarpering.  If you got caught you’d likey be chased and given a good hard slap or hear the threat, “I’ll tell your mother”.

Chalk was also the medium for drawing on the pavement.  Elaborate pictures were made on the stone slabs only to be washed off in the next shower of rain or smeared by the boots of passer- by.  We were allowed to draw on the pavement with impunity unlike the little Kentish girl who was, last year, threatened with prosecution for criminal damage for drawing a hopscotch board.

Nor were we told off for another favourite pastime, swinging on the lamppost.  Lamposts had projections jutting out either side just below the light.  I think these were probably to support a ladder if any work needed to be done on the light but they made a grand support for a rope.  We had a long piece of sash cord which was knotted to form a loop and then throw over the projection. 

The bomb site on Golborne Gardens was a favourite playground as parts of walls were still standing and the delineation of rooms still visible.  Yanoula and I would play “House” and set up chairs and tables from bricks and bits of wood.  Sometimes we’d come across bits of broken china and other things to decorate “our homes”.  In summer the bombsite was a wonderful garden.  As well as the ubiquitous daisies and dandelions (we called them “piss the beds” although we didn’t know that was also what they were called by the French”) a wonderful, tall pink flower called Rosebay Willow Herb also grew.  This was one of the first flowers to colonise the devastated landscape after the buildings had been demolished and, no doubt, was a spirit lifter to the people who lived through the Blitz.  It seems very fitting that, in 2002, it was voted the County Flower of London in a poll by the plant conversation charity Plantlife. 

A favourite place was the Little Rec (Emslie Horniman Gardens as I recently discovered it is called) I would pass through it on my way to and from school at St.Mary’s, lingering rather longer on the way home and playing on the seesaw, swings and witch’s hat.  One of the children’s favourite tricks was to hang upside down on the witch’s hat while keeping out a weather eye for the park keeper who frowned upon such potentially dangerous practices.  In the year before the Health and Safety incubus reared its ugly head the playground area was all tarmac but there were very few accidents.  I can only remember one girl falling off the witch’s hat and breaking her arm although a few managed to go over the head of the rocking horse when it was cranked up to maximum back and forward pitch.

Further afield was the Little Wormwood Scrubs off Delgarno Gardens.  A bit of a hike to get there but it was an enjoyable walk down Barlby Road and past St. Charles hospital with its wonderful Art Nouveau decoration.  We  always wondered if we’d see any escaped prisoners when we were there and this would add a frisson of delicious fear to these expeditions.

Saturday mornings was pocket money time.  A shilling to go to the Saturday Morning Minors at the Prince of Wales cinema in Harrow Road.  Sixpence entry and sixpence for sweets.  Oh, the exciting programmes we watched. The session started with the ABC Minors song.  I can’t recall all the words but it ended “We’re the children of the ABC” shouted at the top of our lungs. Usually a children’s newsreel was followed by several cartoons Tom and Jerry, Mickey Mouse, Bugs Bunny, Popeye and then the serial with its cliffhanger ending.  Would Flash Gordon escape from Ming the Merciless’ clutches or Superman be rescued from exposure to the power sapping Kryptonite?

As well as the pictures, children’s birthdays would be announced and the Birthday Boy or Girl go up on stage to receive a small gift.  Once a year there would be a fancy dress competition with a prize for the best boy and girl.  One year Dad hired costumes for the Bisto Kids for myself and Yanoula but, come the Friday afternoon they hadn’t arrived.  Panic set in and floods of tears from myself.  Poor Mum sat up half the night sewing me a belly dancer’s outfit from old curtains and a velvet bolero of hers while Yanoula had to make do with my First Communion dress and veil and pretend she was  bride.

Until television became more readily accessible in the early 1960s indoor games were usually played with cards or boards.  “Snakes and Ladders” was a favourite as was “Tiddly Winks” and “Chinese Chequers”.  From an early age Dad had taught me to play Cribbage and Patience and to add up, “Fifteen Two, Fifteen Four a pair’s six and a pair’s eight”  And there was the impossible score of “Nineteen” which you announced when you had no points.

I had decided at a young age that I wanted to be a fashion designer and had a large collection of paper dressing up dolls, each one neatly stored in a paper bad with her own collection of printed clothing and that which I had drawn for her.

I also had a large collection of lead farm animals dating from when I was very young.  Before Dad had the shop and was working for a boss he’d get paid on Friday.  Like a lot of men, he’d hand over his unopened pay packet to Mum who would then give him bus fare and “beer money”  On Saturday morning Mum would take me to a toy shop and each week buy me a “family” of animals.  Before I was five I knew “Cob, Pol and Pen” “Baby colt filly and baby colt cob(sic), Mummy mare and Daddy stallion”  Over the years these were added to by plastic animals but I still prized the metal ones, especially the milkmaid with her blue frock and white headdress and the farmer with his crook and one arm that moved.  These were played with by my daughter when she was young and are now in safe keeping for her children.

I was a precocious reader and tackling picture books before I started school.  One of my favourites was “The Weeping Pussy Willow” about a salix that continually cried because he thought that was what he was supposed to do.  He only stopped when some children told him he wasn’t a Weeping Willow tree.  I found the story incredibly sad and would sniffle in sympathy.  Each time my Mum would lose patience with me and vow never to read it to me again.  She relented when I promised I wouldn’t cry but alas my promises were as fluid as my tears and I’d cry all over again.  Other tears were for poor Ginger, Black Beauty’s tragic friend in the eponymous book, for Jumper in the “Story of Jumper a Siberian Colt” by Nicholas Kalshnikoff.  This was the story of a horse compulsorily purchased by the Russian military to fight in WWI.  I often wonder if it was the inspiration for Michael Morpurgo’s “War Horse” as it was published quite some time before his tale of Joey and his human friend Albert and the stories are very similar.

Other favourite reads included the excellent E Nesbitt, Enid Blyton, The Pullein-Thompson sisters, the “Milly-Molly-Mandy” and “Bunchy” series by Joyce Lankester Brisley and individual stories “Rosina Copper” and “Crab the Roan” about horses.

All these books have stood the test of time and I still have great pleasure revisiting my old literary friends some sixty years on.  I wonder how many of today’s children’s books will be re read?

 

1953 Coronation Year

King George VI died in February 1952 not long before we moved to Golborne Road. Although nothing like the mawkish hysteria that accompanied the death of Princess Diana there was public mourning for he had been a popular monarch and his visits with the Queen Mother to the worst bombed parts of London during the second world war endeared him to the populace. Men had black patches sewn onto their coat sleeves and women wore a jet brooch if they had one.
After this funeral there was the coronation of the new monarch to think about. Death had no real meaning for me at the age of seven as the only one I had experienced was that of Grandad Ireland when I was two and I had no memories of it.
The Coronation was to take place on June 2cnd 1953 and a neighbourhood committee was formed to organise events to mark the occasion. Although the war had ended in 1945 food was still rationed and resented. The rationing of tea had ended in October 1952 and of sweets in February 1953 Sugar, butter, cheese and cooking fats were still rationed. To mark the coronation the government allowed everyone an extra pound of sugar, four ounces of margarine and derationed eggs. Bakers were allowed extra fat.
Street parties were held throughout Britain to mark the occasion. Ours was in Golborne Gardens between the Prince Arthur and the bomb site. Trestle tables and wooden benches were borrowed from there , local churches and halls. Red, white and blue bunting was hung from windows and everyone was issued with an “official” invitation to the party. I seem to recall our party was held on the weekend preceding but I may have misremembered.
It was a magnificent affair with everyone dressed in their Sunday best. Boys in grey serge suits with knee length “shorts”, their shoes well polished and hair slicked down with copious quantities of Brylcreem. Girls wearing party frocks adorned with red, white and blue ribbons if they had them or dressed up like a queen in one of their mums’ old nighties and a paper crown. It was a gloriously warm day as if Mother Nature had gone all out to enhance the celebrations. A local brass band valiantly churned out patriotic music, “Hearts of Oak”, “Rule Brittania” “Land of Hope and Glory” or some of the popular tunes of the day.
We had never seen tables piled so high with food, although it was mostly white bread sandwiches with a Spam or Heinz Sandwich Spread filling, a mayonnaise based concoction with finely chopped gherkin, carrots, and celery. There were also trifles and brightly coloured jellies than slowly melted in the heat and a multi-tiered cake with tricolour icing. To drink there were huge pitchers of cordial. The adults fortified themselves with beer or shandy from the “Arthur” or copious cups of very strong tea.
Each child was given a Coronation mug or cup and saucer and there was a clown to entertain us. I suspect there were many upset tummies that evening after all the excitement and unlimited amounts of food.
The reason I feel our party was earlier than the Coronation is because, on Coronation Day, we went to my father’s cousins who lived in Shirland Road Paddington to watch the event on their television. We were all dressed in our best. Despite in being a “Flaming June” Dad was in his Harris tweed suit, complete with waistcoat and Mum wore a floral summer dress, fur stole and feather “fascinator”. I was dressed in party clothes and patent leather shoes with silver buckles, given strict admonition to sit still and not do anything for fear of getting dirty.
Few people had television in 1953 and this was my first experience of one. It was a large wooden cabinet with a grey glass window about nine inches across and six inches high. The rest of the cabinet contained the cathode ray tubes that powered the device and received the signal. It took several minutes after being switched on to warm up and a black and white screen appear. Television only broadcast a couple of hours a day during the 1950s and the rest of the time a test pattern was on the screen. BBC had the monopoly on television until ITV started broadcasting in 1955.
Watching television wasn’t the casual affair it has become. No sprawling on sofas with cups of coffee. Dining chairs were arranged in front of the “box” as if in a cinema and when a programme came on it was given your full attention.
On Coronation Day the attention could not have been fuller. We stood for the National Anthem then perched attentively. From the moment we first heard Richard Dimbleby’s sonorous tones we were mesmerised. Much has been written about the ceremony itself so no point repeating it. After it finished tea and sandwiches (real ham today!) and Victoria Sponge were served then it was time to go home.
As it was a mild evening and we’d been sitting for several hours my parents decided to walk down Elgin Avenue to Harrow Road where we turned onto Great Western Road and then onto Kensal Road. As we crossed over to go down Kensal Road Dad stopped. “What’s that in the gutter?” He bent to pick it up. It was a man’s Wittnauer watch with a gold strap. Dad took it to Harrow Road police station but it was never claimed and thus returned to him. He always wore it and even today, sixty years later, it’s still going.

Lambeth, Golborne,Ghastly Antipodes and home again