Thursday, 31 May 2018

Wash Day Reminiscences

Monday was, without fail, always Wash Day even when it was raining, not just for us but for everyone around us as well. It wasn’t easy to opt out of Wash Day even if you wanted to, and not many would have wanted to. Even if the bedsheets were only changed on a fortnightly basis, and not many housewives would have admitted to such a housekeeping slip-up, it remained a fact that a family needed two changes of underclothing per person, per week. A regular wash day, therefore, was essential.
Along with the rest of England, Northfleet housewives were expected to wash on Monday and the neighbours might even enter into gossip if that didn’t happen. My mother would have definitely considered anyone avoiding the expectations of Monday to be slovenly which was a word she took to using a good deal. She might have described such a miscreant, as slummocky which had more of a ring to it and definitely conjured up the right picture in the mind’s eye. Either way, Wash Day was never missed in our house at least not as far as I can recall. And it started early both summer and winter before six with a fire lit under the scullery copper for the basic and necessary heating of water. Whites were churned vigorously in the copper, sheets, pillow cases and anything made from cotton. Little by little the modest terraced houses began to fill with the steam that would only begin to diminish by Thursday.

Each terraced dwelling had a copper in the scullery, every one brick-built with a small fireplace beneath and each came supplied with a wooden lid and a sturdy copper stick to aid the twenty minutes or so of churning. When I was small I was warned to keep well away from the copper when it was in use because it was considered a hazardous space. Dark stories were told of children who did not heed such warnings and reaped the terrible consequences. The only one I remember was the cautionary tale of the four year old boy who, when dismounting his tricycle, managed to lower his leg into the boiling water and thereafter walked with a limp. His name was Brian and I was told he had very nearly died of shock and so, for different reasons did his long suffering mother who had given him many a warning so when all was said and done, it wasn’t her fault poor soul; he should have listened.
While the whites were agitating, pans of water would be heated on top of the gas cooker for the dolly tub to be filled and the remainder of the wash to begin. Nightdresses, knickers, shirts and socks would now be rubbed against the washboard with the aid of Sunlight soap, bright yellow and looking fit for the job. My mother attired in a print overall, her hair covered in a bright checked scarf, sweat pouring down her face, would pause from time to time to sip from an enamel mug of tea. I would be sitting like a Good Girl on the scullery step and if the day was cold and the door to the backyard was closed, a great deal of the washday steam would have magically transformed itself into water that ran liberally over the walls but the scullery itself would be oddly, snugly, tropically balmy. So memorable was this Monday morning ambiance that on my first visit to Singapore decades later I was instantly, sharply reminded of York Road washdays past.

With luck on our side the arduous task of rinsing the soap from the piles of washing could begin by eight am when the Reckitt’s Blue Bag was added to the final rinsing water. It was a long time before I realized that the object of the Blue Bag was to make Whites appear as white as humanly possible before they were manhandled, piece by piece, into the terrifying jaws of the Mangle. Our Mangle, huge and made of wrought iron with wooden rollers, lived just outside the back door against the wall of the lavatory. In fact you had to pass it on every lavatory visit you made and it could be strangely comforting to bump into its solid hulk on moonless winter nights but on Wash Day it became a disturbing beast. It was a slightly complicated piece of technology in that the space between the rollers could be adjusted if you knew how. Nobody in our family had ever been initiated into the mysteries of fine-tuning its performance and I was constantly reminded of unfortunate children like Brian whose fate has already been detailed, wayward children whose fingers had been wrenched from their hands or flattened beyond recognition on account of foolish meddling with mangles. I lived in fear of joining their ranks and though I was a curious and often disobedient child, I curbed my enthusiasm for exploration of Mangles.

By noon, with a degree of sunshine and a modicum of luck the week’s wash would be tidily pegged to the line with pegs made by my grandmother from slim offcuts of willow that between washes I was allowed to play with as long as I put them all back in the peg basket when I had finished. As I grew a little older and was persuaded by my father to attempt to read difficult books like Little Women I learned that Meg had used a clothes peg nightly pinned to her nose in order to improve the shape. I found it strangely painful when I tried it myself and abandoned the idea when there was no perceptible change in shape on the third morning. Mostly I did not experiment much with the pegs and they were usually merely students in my School For Pegs or patients in my Hospital For Pegs. Later, as my brother grew older they at times became soldiers defending Kent from Roman invaders. We were not possessed of many toys.

Usually on Mondays, unless the day had been excellent for drying, we ate our tea of toast and dripping amidst still damp sheets and shirts hung from cords that criss-crossed the kitchen and forced us to duck and dive in order to avoid them. By morning with a degree of luck the Monday wash would be ready for ironing and by the time I was seven years old our family had become the very proud owners of an electric iron. As far as I can remember this enviable and convenient aid to modern housekeeping was proudly purchased from Frost’s in Northfleet High Street by my father to mark the birth of my baby brother in April 1947. It was definitely a step up from the flat irons of my earlier childhood. Nevertheless, rather inconveniently it had to be plugged into the light socket above the kitchen table which entailed mounting a chair and first removing the light bulb. This in turn meant that ironing could only take place in daylight hours and so it usually took place on Tuesday mornings. It was a hazardous process and sturdy shoes needed to be worn because somehow or other my mother had come to believe that shoes would protect her from death by electrocution. My cousin Margaret, ironing a school blouse was once thrown across the kitchen in Iron Mill Lane, Crayford simply because her feet were clad only in cotton socks. She could very well have been killed, at least that is what I was told and from that moment on, I also had a healthy respect for electric irons and to this day wonder if I should change my footwear before beginning the task.

Even though by Tuesday evening the week’s ironing was completed, the regular washday ritual was not totally concluded because the sheets and shirts still had to be aired and so they once again hung above us on the improvised indoor lines until they were safe to use. My mother believed that the consequences of wearing a damp liberty bodice would be dire and pneumonia would most likely result. Thankfully I have not inherited this particular conviction and my own children happily donned damp garments without noticeable health problems throughout their childhood.

In the 1940s, Wash Day and its aftermath was an exhaustive undertaking and considering this it was not entirely unreasonable that our clean clothes were rationed. Until I reached the age of not quite sixteen and was about to leave school I was never allocated more than two clean pairs of knickers and socks weekly and it simply did not occur to me to protest. One pink floral wynceyette nightdress was donned after each Saturday evening bath and not discarded until the following Saturday and when I grew older and attended Colyer Road Secondary School and Wombwell Hall, I was granted just one clean blouse weekly. This latter garment was decidedly grimy and slightly smelly by Thursday each week which was understandable as not much mid-week washing of necks and underarms took place. On the other hand back then most of us smelt the same, even those boasting brand new bathrooms on spanking new housing estates because old habits die hard as far as general cleanliness is concerned, at least that’s how it was then. And if this appears just a little distasteful from a modern viewpoint it helps to consider that a hundred years earlier the situation would have been even more dire and two or three hundred years ago simply doesn’t bear thinking about.
In 1952 at Colyer Road Secondary School during a history lesson that these days would more likely be called Social Studies, the enthusiastic young Supply Teacher urged us to speak with our grandparents about how life had changed over decades, ask our grandmothers what household tasks had been like when she was a young mother herself. I wasn’t all that keen so rather half- heartedly enquired of Old Nan what her own Wash Day had been like in those years before the first World War when she already had half a dozen small children. She said it had been not much trouble to her on account of The Bagwash. I never found out exactly what The Bagwash entailed and lacked the confidence to enquire how many clean underclothes she doled out weekly to her brood. I strongly suspected changes of clothing were few and far between.

There’s no doubt at all that the emergence of modern washing facilities in the form of modern bathrooms and automatic washing machines and dryers in every home has transformed the ease with which we can now monitor bodily odours and how many clean pairs of knickers we allow ourselves each week.

Saturday, 21 April 2018

Reflecting Upon Down Syndrome Decades On

I had not given Brian Philpott a thought for years, not until a neighbour recently spoke of her young brother, a Down Syndrome sufferer. We discussed the need for inclusion and how over decades society’s attitude toward children with disabilities has inexorably changed for the better. Later I found myself thinking about Brian and wondering about our attitude toward him as he grew up in Shepherd Street.

Back then we knew nothing of chromosome abnormalities and had of course never heard of John Langden Down who apparently had first described the condition in 1862. Because of the features of the affected children he called them Mongoloid and in 1949, some ninety years later so did we. My mother said Brian was a Poor Little Bugger and wouldn’t live long because children like him never did and that all them Mongols were slow. It wasn’t until 1961, long after I had left the district and pushed all memory of him from my consciousness that scientists began to suggest that the term Mongolism had misleading connotations and had become an embarrassing term. It was dropped completely in 1965 and those with a connection to children with the condition had to learn overnight to describe them as having Down Syndrome. To be fair it probably wasn’t nearly as hard for those with an afflicted family member as it was for the rest of us. Most of us, with the exception of course of the medical profession and those training to be social workers, continued to describe children like Brian as Mongols. This meant that we were treated to hostile and superior looks or as time went on, the error of our terminology was pointed out to us.

But when we were children it was still perfectly acceptable for Brian to be referred to as a Mongol. He was supremely unaware of all this and a more cheerful and chirpy child would have been hard to find. He lived at number 60 Shepherd Street with his grandparents, Annie and Albert Philpott. He called Them Mum and Dad and for a long time I thought they were indeed his parents until I overheard Old Nan saying that his actual mother had Scarpered and who could blame her. This may or may or not have been true because Old Nan was well known for jumping to conclusions and as my mother was wont to point out, getting the wrong end of the stick.
What Brian may have lacked in intelligence he made up for in enthusiasm and was always more than anxious to join in any group game being played and happy to take on roles that the rest of us discarded on account of them being monotonous. Brian never tired of the tedious and the repetitive and was simply delighted to be accepted as part of the crowd, guarding camps, searching for lost balls and inexpertly keeping scores without argument and with a cheerful countenance. He loved being with each and every one of us and did not seem to attempt to analyse why it was that although he was willingly included in group games, singly it was harder for him to find a playmate, especially among the boys. The only one of us always agreeable to playing with Brian on a one to one basis was Kathleen Draper who lived a few doors away from him. He called her My Kath and loved her dearly, following a step or two behind her and obeying her every instruction. And Kathleen looked after him like a mother although she was only a year or so his senior, ensuring that from time to time he got Proper Turns in games and prepared to put up a fight on his behalf if anyone argued about it. Even in more complex games like What’s The Time Mr Wolf when nobody ever really wanted Brian to be the wolf, Kathleen would take his hand when he got muddled and tirelessly explain that it couldn’t always be Time to Eat you Up which was his favourite part of the ritual. And with her beside him, holding on to him tightly, he rose to the occasion and managed to remember.

I can’t remember Brian going to school with us so perhaps he went to a special class somewhere in the neighbourhood along with Elsie Coppins from Buckingham Road who was in a wheelchair because she couldn’t walk, or maybe he wasn’t required to attend at all. My mother said there was no point anyway because if you were like him you’d never learn to read and write because you simply wouldn’t have what it took. It stood to reason and it was his poor grandmother she felt sorry for. Nevertheless Kathleen was making firm attempts to teach Brian to read and he could already recognize B for Brian and K for Kath. She said she didn’t mind how long it took because it had to be done. Brian wanted to be a train driver and he would need to be able to read at the very least the names of the local stations. Even as a ten year old I understood why he loved her so devotedly.

Thursday, 12 April 2018

St Botolph's School Remembered

I recall the staff at St Botolph’s School in the late nineteen forties with a certain amount of affection. I greatly admired Miss Honour who I saw as unbelievably glamorous when I was five especially after I overheard her comment that she thought I must be adopted because I was quite unlike my mother. I regarded Mrs Johnson a little more cautiously because she was not as easily fooled by the BBC accent I was trying to cultivate when I was six but on the other hand she gave me Enid Blyton stories to read. I was not quite as keen on Mrs Allen who threatened me with physical punishment when my father complained to her about my behaviour at home (despite the fact that she was heard to say I was as Good as Gold at school) but felt secure with Miss Biggs who helped me complete the doll’s bonnet I was trying to knit. Each of them were sound teachers and basically kind. All were eclipsed, however, by Mr Clarke in whose class we found ourselves for two wonderful years and whose teaching was at times inspiring and whose pupils without exception loved him dearly. The boys were particularly intrigued by his war record. He had been a fighter pilot during the war and was shot down and became a POW. This information did not emotionally move the girls nearly as much of course but Will Clarke was able to enthuse and motivate each one of us in a way that eludes most who decide to enter the teaching profession.

Friday afternoons were in particular an exciting time devoted to ideas and to books. Mr Clarke discussed with us all manner of interesting ideas such as the rights and wrongs of cannibalism and what human flesh might taste like. John Dyke wanted to know if he meant when it was raw or when it was cooked and Mr Clarke paused momentarily before assuring him that he meant when it was cooked. Even quiet and good Wendy Maxted who rarely said much raised her head at once and wanted to know exactly how it would have been cooked. A few of the more assertive and popular girls began to laugh but stopped when Mr Clarke treated that question seriously also and explained that he thought it might have been simmered in a cauldron with roots and vegetables and perhaps a few herbs. This cooking method and the resulting taste was then hotly debated until Mr Clarke said that he had heard that human flesh when cooked with care tasted a little bit like lamb. With that we were silenced although I found myself contemplating this interesting morsel of information on every future occasion when the Sunday roast happened to be lamb.

On one occasion he led us into a discussion as to whether or not children would ever be allowed to vote and if it was a good thing and if so which political paths we might pursue. He listened carefully to the reasons why our families were Labour or Conservative without passing comment. A substantial number of us surprisingly perhaps supported the Conservatives though one boy admitted to having a father who was decidedly Communist and believed in Communal Farms. The rest of us did not understand how that particular form of agriculture worked and Mr Clarke enthusiastically explained and the following Friday told us something of Russian History and how and why the 1918 revolution happened. Those of us who lost interest and became bored by these Friday afternoon debates were allowed to doodle or fall asleep without comment.

It was also a time when we were introduced to poetry – The Lady of Shallot, Daffodils, The Destruction of Sennacherib and were urged to read the Myths of Ancient Greece and Rome. And occasionally he would encourage us to write our own poetry if we felt so inclined. For these reasons though time passed I was never quite able to relinquish memory of Mr Clarke.

Six decades later Molly Freeman, then determinedly beginning to master the use of email, sent me an excited message because she had by an odd accident of fate involving an article about football in a local paper, rediscovered Will Clarke, by then in his nineties and living in The Midlands. We were ecstatic to make contact once again with the man who had deftly turned what might have been two completely ordinary primary school years into a time during which learning became distinctive and exceptional. And he, more than at ease with the intricacies of electronic messaging, communicated with each of us with enthusiasm and deliberated all aspects of those St Botolph’s days. We learned that his time at the school had not always been as uncomplicated as our own and that the loss of his teenage son in a road accident had all but paralysed him emotionally. We also began to understand that the demands placed upon him and the rest of the school staff by the most unpopular headmaster, Mr Cook,had made life anything but enjoyable and had caused him to examine frequently the reasons why he stayed.

This latter sentiment we certainly understood because if we found Will Clarke hard to forget, few of us who attended St Botolph’s School during those years have found it easy to forget the tyrannical Mr Cook. How this disturbing head teacher ever became involved in the business of educating the young is a mystery because he was truly a man as sadistic as Mr Clarke was compassionate and as terrifying as he was gentle, as poor an educator as he was inspirational . Now I find myself seriously wondering how and why he made the choice he did, what caused his alarming rages, and if he actually realized the degree of terror he instilled in us. And did he ever ask himself why it was that his pupils feared him as fervently as they loved Will Clarke?

Thursday, 29 March 2018

The Implication & Significance of Names

It was quite recently that I learned from a television news item of a young girl called Burgundy Rose who had met with a tragic accident. A sad end to a young life but I couldn’t help noting that sixteen years previously someone had decided to give her a name that was never going to be easily overlooked. Burgundy Rose will live on not only in the hearts and minds of those who loved her but she also has a vague reality for others like me who never met her, those with a fondness for unusual names. Hours later I met the young man proudly in charge of the current painting project in this city fringe complex, who with excellent English gave me a great deal of information about undercoats and sealants together with his business card from which I learned that his name was Raphael. Had I but been sixteen years old again I would undoubtedly have become immediately enchanted because with such a name how could I possibly resist him? On the other hand it did not seem appropriate to debate the matter with him so I did not do so.

It would be true to say that in general Antipodean parents are more inclined to take chances as far as names are concerned than their Northern Hemisphere counterparts. Where in London would you find a Delwyn or Selwyn other than in that little enclave around Earls Court underground station where elderly waitresses called Ngaire and Hinemoa are still said to linger in the shadows? And only in South Auckland did I ever come across two Miracles, a Blessing and a Destiny. It is uncommon for British parents to follow the example of Paula Yates and Bob Geldoff and succumb completely to such flights of fancy. When my daughter was nine or ten she hankered after being called Fifi-Trixibelle with a longing that kept her awake at night before hitting on the idea of renaming one of her collection of stuffed animals. A few months later she was also the proud owner of a monkey called Peaches and a lamb called Little Pixie. When Heavenly Hiraani Tiger Lily came along she had long outgrown this particular naming lust and the once greatly loved collection of animals languished under beds, squashed into plastic bags.
In the late 1940s most of us growing up in the Thameside towns of North Kent were given names that were solid and sensible and presumably to some extent in vogue at the time. Our class at St Botolph’s was a hotbed of Margarets and Maureens, Pamelas and Paulines with just a few emerging Shirleys and one Suzanne whose mother was half French. The only girl I envied name-wise was Wendy Selves and that was because I had been taken to see Peter Pan at The Chatham Empire. The boys were largely Colins, Brians and Georges and just one or two Barrys and Franks.

By the mid 1950s local girls giving birth to infants in their teens, like Ann Davis of Tooley Street and my cousin Pat from Crayford, struck out for independence, proudly naming their daughters Cheryl-Ann and Sharon-Marie and embroidering their choice on the frilled pillows the infants lay on for all to see and admire. I clearly recall the clutch of Pams and Pats and Paulines who had shared my class at Colyer Road Secondary Modern School and transferred as I did to the lofty heights of Wombwell Hall, chattering excitedly when our erstwhile friend Marjorie Bullen stunned us by dropping out of education at just sixteen in order to be married and produce a daughter strikingly christened Natalia-Kym. How we longed to throw aside typing classes and join Marjorie in the ranks of the newly-wed mothers of 1956, pushing prams along Hall Road and having passers-by admire our pink bonneted offspring and its exotic name.

When, in my teenage years, I constructed newly invented families one after another to replace the one that life had bestowed upon me, I gave myself a new name every time and for a year or two greatly favoured Toni, short for Antoinette and carefully considered what my several brothers might be called. At one stage the Toni of the Moment had a trio of brothers called Quentin, Tarquin and Errol, in an act which I felt successfully liberated the uninspiringly named boys of St Botolph’s. I found this enormously satisfying and felt that each Colin, Brian and George of Northfleet might feel likewise had I but been able to tell them. Many years later I was to realise that I was not entirely alone in the echelons of those who desired what they felt should have been awarded them in the first place – a more agreeable and pleasing name.
My classmates at Wombwell Hall of course largely sported the same names as the girls of St Botolph’s. Those I remember are a Mary, a Kathleen, two Florences, a Julia, a Shirley, a Pauline, a Pamela, a Patricia, a Norma, an Anne with an E, a Marilyn, a Priscilla, two Margarets, a Valerie, an Yvonne and a Joyce who I later persuaded to become a Lynn. There were others because we were a class of twenty four but memory of them is lost.

At least one Ann without an E had also been a student at Wombwell Hall, though in the year ahead of me and at one stage a Form Captain to boot. Ann Gollop, slender and golden-haired with cornflower blue eyes leading her form class from each morning assembly passing directly in front of me and daily making me fervently wish I looked more like her. Even her name was, in my view more acceptable than my own, though had I been in her shoes I would definitely have added an E to the spelling. Somewhat surprisingly I was to meet her again a decade later when we both found ourselves working at The Latin Quarter nightclub in Gerrard Street, Soho. That very same Ann, still enviably willowy, her golden hair now a beehive halo about her head, her cornflower eyes enhanced with expertly applied make-up, dressed in a gold lame cocktail dress. And when I acquainted her with the fact that we two had been at school together she looked at me uncomprehendingly because of course back in those days she had been dazzling and I had been completely insignificant and therefore there was no reason at all why she should recall me. The very first thing she said was that her name was no longer Ann and she would be appreciative if I didn’t call her that, with or without an E. She had long left Ann behind and she was now Kimberley. I could simply call her Kim if I wanted to. The second thing she said was that in her opinion Wombwell Hall must have been a school with a bad influence because neither of us had lasted long in the typing pool had we?

And just as in our schooldays she demonstrated definite leadership ability when Mitzi, the girl I was detailed to sit beside, advised me in a low voice to mind my Ps and Qs with Kim because she was the Head Hostess! So I minded them.

Thursday, 15 March 2018

Greta Thilthorpe, A Friend From The Past

There are definite positive aspects to having a Facebook account, although at times I agree that the negatives can be weighty. Without FB I would never have known of the recent passing of Greta Thilthorpe that erstwhile best friend of my early teenage years. It was Dawn who told me, a friend I have never actually met but I feel as if I know. Without FB I would not now be starting this Friday with a rather heavy heart full of sombre thoughts about the Meaning of Life. Does it have any meaning? I was rather hoping Stephen Hawking would finally reveal the answer to this exasperating question but alas he too is now recently beyond recall.

Greta was the remarkably sensible Only Girl in a large family featuring a clutch of moodily handsome boys and a rather exotic mother with a penchant for red chiffon and heavy jewellery. Well so it seemed to me at the time but then you have to bear in mind that when I first became Greta’s friend I had only very recently celebrated my thirteenth birthday. She on the other hand was seventeen and in her final year at Wombwell Hall as I was about to start my first. I think our slightly unusual friendship came about in the first place because my mother had just started to work for Peggy and Vic Troke at their shop in Shepherd Street where Greta’s mother had been employed for several years. I was to inherit Greta’s outgrown school uniforms though for me they were uncomfortably tight around the waist and chest because I was fast becoming what my Uncle Harold described as a Fine Specimen of English Womanhood and Young Harold, his elder son, described as Fat. My mother claimed that I was not fat at all, but merely Stout. I could not decide which of the trio I hated most. In any event, as we certainly did not have Money to Burn on trivialities like school uniforms I was required to wear the cast off skirts and blouses whether I liked the idea or not. At the same time I became Greta’s friend though being several years my senior my mother did wonder if it was a good idea. The one thing she did not want was me being corrupted by an older girl because a few months before the advent of Greta into my life I had become friendly with yet another seventeen year old, this time one called Shirley who worked for Ripleys the greengrocers. Shirley had permed hair and pierced ears and a boyfriend who was doing his National Service. She introduced me to cigarettes and gin and so a halt was called to the friendship quite rapidly.

Greta was an entirely different kettle of fish who wore no make-up and her school shoes at weekends and there was little danger of me becoming corrupted which I could not help thinking was a pity but nevertheless there were definite advantages in the friendship. Shirley had been more than willing to talk about sex and How Far she had Gone with her absent boyfriend whereas Greta had not yet developed an interest in the opposite sex and her attitudes were closer to those greatly applauded by my mother who commented that you could say what you like about Greta but you couldn’t say she was Fast. She may not have been Fast but Greta was canny and had a knack of saying rude things to older women (like Peggy Troke) with a guileless expression in both voice and face that led them to believe she was just being refreshingly truthful. She was also exceptionally generous and my cousin Connie who was not known for her own generosity, said that’s simply what happened within large families and it was an experience I was unlikely to encounter in my own because I was only blessed with one brother. Both Connie and Greta had been blessed with a large number of brothers and of Greta’s I remember Michael clearer than the rest of them because he was dazzlingly good looking and fifteen. For his part he failed to notice me at all even when I wore Evening In Paris to his parents’ twenty fifth wedding anniversary.

I remember Greta as having an extraordinarily good work ethic and during the years of our friendship she seemed able to locate all the local farms that largely and quite illegally employed child labour for harvesting work that the adults in the area were beginning to avoid and paid what my grandmother said was a Pittance. Greta was unconcerned with pay rates and simply lined us up for work that usually began at five am each morning of the school holidays. This meant that unlike many of our acquaintances she and I for a time had money to spend on sweets, ice-creams, Smiths Crisps and bottles of Tizer. My brother, who already spoke longingly of owning a pair of binoculars was, at the age of seven, considered even by Greta as being just a bit too young. Old Nan, not known for having a good word to say about teenage girls was wont to shake her head and admit albeit in a low voice that when all was said and done, Greta was a Grafter and no Mistake!

She was also something of an adventurer and that was an attitude that greatly appealed to me. Although I was quite unable to persuade Molly Freeman to embark upon a train trip in the general direction of London, and when I suggested the idea to Joan Bennett she simply looked dazed and said she’d have to ask her Mum, it did not occur to Greta that mothers should ever be asked for permission to do something as ordinary as get on a train. Mothers were busy people, she said, and had more on their minds than train trips especially when their youngest two, like their Stephen and Christopher both had Mumps. She had an idea, she told me, for getting to London without paying a proper fare, simply with the aid of a platform ticket. In the end we got as far as Woolwich Dockyard where even Greta began to doubt the practical aspects of the plan and she deftly led the way to the correct platform that pointed us back towards Gravesend where we nonchalantly handed in our crumpled, sticky platform tickets and exited the station. And over the next month she and I embarked upon a number of similar outings to Maidstone, Gillingham and even Whitstable. These were adventures unfamiliar to most of my Wombwell Hall classmates and because of Greta I managed to gain a certain amount of kudos among the girls of 1SC.

Following Dawn’s message today I’ve thought a lot about the time when Greta Thilthorpe was my friend and have come to the conclusion that she may not have been a particularly sophisticated seventeen year old but she was never simply Run of the Mill or Ordinary. It’s a pity we seem destined to lose touch with the friends that populated our past.

Saturday, 3 March 2018

The Cobbler of Shepherd Street

Throughout my childhood and teenage years Mr Hammond was the person we took our shoes to when they needed mending. Later on I learned that he was proficient in a wide range of repair services including watches and jewellery but our relationship with him only concerned footwear. He was an old fashioned cobbler and at times was heard to claim that theoretically he should not be called a cobbler at all, but a cordwainer because he was a skilled artisan. Not so very long ago he said, he had on a daily basis constructed luxury footwear and back in those days the cobbler was simply the person who repaired the shoes that men like him had made. And warming to his theme he was heard to add that back then the cobbler was actually forbidden from working with new leather and even had to use old leather for repairs. The difference between these two trades had once been considerable to the extent that to call a cordwainer a cobbler was to greatly insult him. In Mr Hammond’s opinion the long and proud British tradition of shoe-making was slowly Going To The Dogs. None of this was of any interest to my mother or grandmother when they handed in items to be mended, the latter remarking that in her opinion he talked a lot of Twaddle which was probably on account of him being Chapel rather than Roman Catholic.

When I was a pre-schooler my extra special black patent round toed shoes with traditional ankle straps were handed over to this Cordwainer-turned-Cobbler simply to see if he was able to stretch them a little. I had outgrown them long before my mother considered it to be Normal and as they had cost a Pretty Penny and the soles showed evidence of plenty of remaining wear, stretching might solve the problem. Mr Hammond was not enthusiastic and said that in any event he was not a fan of stretching children’s shoes because in the long run it did their feet no good at all. My mother’s neck bristled with annoyance as she thanked him for his advice and later told Mrs Bassant next door that not everybody was Made of Money and new shoes for kiddies of my age not only involved expense but were hard to come by in wartime even if you had the required coupons. A few days later I inherited ankle strapped footwear that had once been red but were now a strange sludge colour, from my cousin Connie who lived in Waterdales.

No one could say that Mr Hammond was not obliging and on occasions he went above and beyond the call of duty in service of the public. When my father came back from the war, later than his compatriots because of the debilitating illness he contracted in North Africa but by mid 1946 looking hale and hearty once more, the first local shop he visited was Mr Hammond’s. His black Sunday shoes needed attention if he was to attend Mass the next day at the Church of Our Lady of the Assumption looking his best. Cognizant of the importance of the situation, Mr Hammond did not allow his own religious affinity to stand in the way of his obligations and my father’s shoes were attended to in record time causing him to remark to my mother that the Shepherd Street Cobbler was a decent chap. My mother did not respond except to sniff a bit but the good thing was that at eleven am Mass my father looked very dapper indeed in his pin-striped demob suit, white silk scarf and the newly mended shoes that had been shone to perfection. Mrs Judd whose husband had been Lost at Dunkirk, two of the Campbell girls and Sister Camilla all commented upon the fact that he was a Very Pleasant Chap and it was good to welcome him back into the Roman Catholic community.

There was no doubt that Mr Hammond was a committed Christian despite his unfortunate association with Chapel. On a number of occasions when delivering footwear to him as we grew up, he would talk to me and my friend Molly about the life of Jesus, a topic which clearly absorbed him – and to a lesser extent also interested us. He was convinced that Jesus had visited Great Britain and probably even spoke English, perhaps almost as well as we did ourselves. When we exchanged glances and wondered how The Reverend Gunner at St Botolph’s might view this information, he warmed to his theme and asked us if we agreed that Jesus would have been a strong and adventurous young lad. Molly nodded a little doubtfully and Mr Hammond turned to me and wanted to know if I believed that Jesus was the nephew of Joseph of Arimathea. I nodded enthusiastically anxious not to display my ignorance about who this particular Joseph might be. Mr Hammond became more animated because didn’t this Joseph trade with the Tin Islands? Were not the Tin Islands the very land on which we stood? Wasn’t it plain common sense to accept that a healthy and adventurous twelve year old lad would have been desperate to accompany his uncle? Yes, yes, yes we agreed! But later it turned out that The Reverend Gunner was less enthralled with the information and so I chose not to mention it to Father O`Connor or even to my own father.

The last time I remember calling upon the services of Mr Hammond was when I was twenty years old and had returned from a somewhat illicit period in Amsterdam in the company of a man who had assured me that he thought extremely highly of me but turned out to have a wife he was even more fond of in a suburb of The Hague. Although I had been forced to reluctantly relinquish him and the future we were going to have together, I was not required to surrender the very expensive shoes and matching shoulder bag he had bought for me in a pleasingly upmarket Amsterdam store. The Cobbler of Shepherd Street was on my To Do list upon my return and I was more than pleased to be told that mine were the finest shoes Mr Hammond had seen in many a long year. Fashioned from the very best leather, superbly crafted, they had been a joy to repair. He recognised their excellence he told me because of course he had begun his working life as a cordwainer rather than a cobbler and he carefully and at some length explained the difference between those two terms. Not that there was shame in simply being a cobbler of course he added, but over time the profession had diminished and leant itself to less than perfect work. Standards had fallen everywhere. Which of course, he said, half shaking his head as he handed the shoes back to me had led to that ungenerous term – Cobbling Something Together.

Tuesday, 13 February 2018

BERNARD HENDY....A Memory of a Life

I wrote MORE THAN JUST SKELETONS largely as a tribute to my brother who died in April 2016. We had always planned to write the book about our early lives in and around Northfleet & Gravesend together but fate intervened as it invariably does.
Bernard was never a straightforward human being and his life became ever more complicated as he aged. Like so many of those who loved and admired him I think I simply wanted the echoes of that life to continue to resonate.
The book is available in both print and ebook versions and can be found on Amazon or Smashwords.