Tuesday, 28 March 2017

Robin Hood Alive & Well At Wrotham Hill

My grandmother was not averse to general pilfering of one kind and another and probably this habit had its roots in the extreme poverty of her earliest years. I can’t ever remember her coming to the attention of the police on account of it which could have been due to uncommon good luck or more likely to the customary code of silence that was inclined to govern such behaviour in families like ours. She certainly had what were called Run Ins with authority on other matters such as drunkenness, fighting – most notably with other pickers in the Kent Hop Gardens each year, and forgetting to register the births of her many children but her frequent thefts from other people’s washing lines seemed to be at all times overlooked. This would have been considered a good thing because within our family ranks as long as stealing did not involve getting caught then it appeared to be largely condoned and often even the trigger for minor celebration. As we were at the same time firmly adhered to the doctrines of the Catholic Church It took me a long time to work my way through this particular dichotomy; it seemed confusing. The case of my Aunt Freda was less bewildering because this particular Crayford Constant was well known as a habitual thief and con woman but because of her special position as The Baby and the fact that she was thought not to have complete control over her various urges her misdeeds had always been tolerated by both parents and siblings and also the local priest.

Nellie, my mother was the second oldest in the family and her early memories were more concerned with drunkenness and hunger rather than whether any food or clothing that made its way into the family had been paid for or simply purloined from retailers’ shelves or filched from neighbours. Even so, years later she greatly objected to her youngest sister’s Black Market deceptions particularly where her own Northfleet neighbours were concerned and tut-tutted audibly when silk stockings and lipsticks paid for in advance by touchingly trusting housewives failed to be delivered as promised. She said that Freda would have the Shirt Off Your Back if you didn’t keep your wits about you and you needed Eyes In The Back Of Your Head when she was around. Old Nan was invariably quick to leap to the defence of her youngest child and explain to anyone inclined to listen that there was No Harm In Her, a view not universally shared. My brother and I were quick to notice that our mother’s own petty thieving increased with the death of our father though for many years involved such insignificant items such as cans of baked beans and the occasional packet of Garibaldi biscuits and mostly we chose to ignore it or as she would have said herself, Turn A Blind Eye. It was not a topic we were comfortable bringing up and we were both quite grown up before we actually openly discussed these episodes of lawbreaking together and even then it was obvious we still felt somewhat awkward and disloyal about the dialogue.
Bernard’s first wife, Janice, having been raised within a far more straightforward and honest environment, had considerably less reluctance for the debate and said that although she had found it very odd that every time a cupboard was opened in my mother’s cramped kitchen a dozen cans of baked beans were likely to topple out, she regarded her not merely as a thief but rather as a kind of latter day Robin Hood. After merely a slight hesitation Janice insisted that there was more than just a minor element of the redistribution of riches in my mother’s behaviour. Urged to further clarify she explained that she had found her mother-in-law particularly practiced at reallocating expensive items of children’s clothing around to those she decided were in most need and that her own small son had been the fortunate recipient of a number of items during the first year of his life. Naturally enough, now she had given voice to the aberrant behaviour, even though my brother cowed back into his chair looking vaguely embarrassed, I demanded to be acquainted with the full story.

Janice said that the situation under review largely concerned my older cousin Margery, she who had been Carrying On with Ron, her new boss once she left the job in the shoe shop in Dartford. By the time Janice and Bernard had met, Margery had not only discarded Jock her first husband, but The Boss had left his own wife and family, and they had both left the rumour and tittle tattle of Crayford behind and set up home in Vicarage Drive Northfleet. The new homes had been built on the site of the old St Botolph’s Church Vicarage and they were at the time quite the smartest residences in the area or at least we thought them to be. Even Old Nan, not given to compliments had said that considering what could have transpired, Margery had Done Well. As to the snags concerning The Boss’s reluctance to extricate himself from his Roman Catholic marriage, this was not openly discussed by any of us and Nellie pursed her lips and shook her head disapprovingly at me when I was once foolish enough to bring it up, talking of Layos For Meddlers in quite a threatening manner so I knew better than to persist. Whether or not Margery was to be made an Honest Woman of became irrelevant with the advent of the nineteen sixties and the birth of her first child, Nigel whom my mother was only too eager to babysit as frequently as was necessary. Eventually the house in Vicarage Drive was disposed of and an even more impressive residence in the form of old farm house was acquired at Wrotham Hill together with a number of farm cottages. My brother was foolishly confident that he might persuade Ron The Boss to part with one of the near derelict cottages at a reasonable price since it was his own dream to live in a truly rural environment. However, that dream was firmly dispatched into the ether when Ron decided he would rather demolish all the old farm buildings. This action caused a great deal of negative comment among the relatives and even Old Nan, not always a total supporter of my brother or myself or in fact any of her many grandchildren, was heard to say that even a fool could see that the cottages were habitable and Ron suddenly descended from being halfway acceptable to becoming As Ignorant As Pigshit. Perhaps it was simply that Ron did not want Bernard as a near neighbour which was understandable as he already had my mother as a semi-permanent child minding house guest and he might have feared a full on invasion of the immediate family with me bringing up the rear. However, for many years the cottage demolition was to greatly irk poor Bernard who saw it as needless vandalism and this view was generally supported by my mother though she was considerably more reluctant to voice her opinion.

Baby Nigel was a much doted upon infant which is probably not unusual with first children and from time to time his parents would bring back expensive hand embroidered silk baby outfits from Paris and Lucerne on their Urgent Trips Abroad that so frequently co-incided with Bank Holiday weekends. But with such an eager child minder as Nellie, ever admiring of Nigel and his lavish wardrobe, who can blame them for the timing of their Mini Breaks?

Janice and Bernard’s own baby was not born until Christmas Eve 1965 when little Nigel had already been joined by a younger sister, and brother, Jayne and Peter. All three would almost certainly have outgrown the distinctive hand embroidered silk garments from Continental Europe and these no doubt had been folded away awaiting the birth of some possible future baby. Things would not quite go to plan, however, because at some stage during her frequent child minding stays at the house at Wrotham Hill my mother had decided to distribute the baby finery more equitably around the pool of family infants and my sister-in-law found herself the recipient of a most impressive summer outfit for her young son, then several months old. She was astonished she said, for several reasons, the first being that when she commented upon the hand stitching and the French label inside the tiny collar my mother had insisted she had Picked Up the ensemble for Next to Nothing at Gravesend Market from Old Sid Strong the well known Gravesend Market Trader. Strongy had worked the market every Saturday for decades, moving on to Petticoat Lane on Sunday mornings and over the years, although he vended canteen after canteen of cutlery and a never ending line in Dinner Services, not to mention thousands of china ornaments and electric toasters none of us could remember him ever dealing in upmarket baby clothes. The declared origins of the gift therefore seemed highly improbable. Furthermore, Janice’s baby was accustomed to wearing ordinary Stretch & Gros and she wondered whether there would ever be an occasion grand enough on which he could don the dazzling outfit for an hour or two. However, her parents’ wedding anniversary party in Chatham a few weeks later seemed to provide the perfect opportunity. Janice said he looked quite splendid in the finery so much so that Bernard took a number of photographs of him. They set off from London for Chatham that Sunday afternoon in high spirits.

It was Bernard who suggested that on the way they might drop into the house on Wrotham Hill and say hello to his cousin and Ron who had by this time and at long last stopped being referred to as Margery’s Fancy Man or The Boss by the various Aunts and was now very nearly accepted by one and all. When the young family arrived, my mother was pouring tea on the terrace at the back of the house, completely and happily involved in the role she had adopted of being a kind of Faithful Family Retainer. Everyone seemed delighted to see the unexpected visitors and they were ushered into seats and urged to drink tea. Janice said she was halfway through her first cup when she noticed that Margery who was sitting opposite her seemed to be transfixed by baby Merlin on his father’s knee beaming in his dazzling infant apparel. Well why not? He was a simply gorgeous baby after all. A further moment passed before she realised that it was the hand embroidered silk baby clothes that Margery seemed so taken with. Janice had already begun on the explanation for the finery, purchased by his doting Grandma at Gravesend Market for Next to Nothing from Old Strongy when realisation dawned and she knew by Margery’s astonished expression and her faint echoing of `Old Strongy?’ that nothing was more certain than that a Robin Hood episode had taken place. In the same moment she knew that there was little further that could be said or done by way of explanation that would save the day. The best and only action she decided was to refuse a second cup of tea and hurry onwards towards the wedding anniversary celebrations in Chatham. The unplanned visit of the Hendy Family had lasted a mere twenty minutes.

It was a long time before they returned to the Farmhouse on Wrotham Hill, and neither was any invitation extended to them to do so. Strangely, my mother’s relationship with her niece and family seemed only to strengthen but possibly that was in large part due to pragmatism and the fact that willing child minders were hard to find in that particular corner of Kent.
Whatever the actual truth of the matter was, when the Robin Hood story was told to me thirty years after the event I listened with more than a little interest and began to rethink the origins of unexpected luxury items I had occasionally found myself in possession of as a teenager. For instance the No Longer Required though clearly nearly new woollen dressing gown I had inherited from The Lovells when my mother first worked for them. It was the very first dressing gown of my life because at that time they seemed to be garments belonging to people in books, not those from working class families like me. Even at the time I was struck by the bountiful munificence of the gift. Now I wondered what had happened to the note of thanks I had written for my mother to deliver on her next working day.

Tuesday, 21 March 2017

The Two Miss Smiths Of Wombwell Hall

I felt completely at home the moment I walked over the threshold of Wombwell Hall in July 1953 for the Entrance Assessment Interview. It was as if I had a residual memory of a past association with the place. This was of course both fanciful and ludicrous depending upon your viewpoint. Nonetheless the very walls seemed to envelop me in security and warmth and I knew immediately that each and every part of the old house would become an invaluable aid to the various lives I lived in my imagination, most of which were in no way connected to everyday life and lacklustre reality. Daily I could immerse myself in the intricacies of a BBC historical drama or even a Rank Organisation mini epic, of that I had no doubt.

I was not an especially creative child, nor an original thinker and there was nothing I did particularly well but I was filled with an insatiable and secret desire to somehow escape from my place at the bottom of the Social Heap in the Victorian industrial terraces of Northfleet and Gravesend. My ambition was not to become overly rich but merely to excel in some aspect of the creative arts such as Drama, Dance or Music. Perhaps even write stories that others would read and be inspired by or possibly scripts for television or film. These aspirations, disconnected from reality though they were, did not diminish as time passed but grew ever stronger. To be fair they had been made a great deal worse by the Children’s Department of Northfleet Library and the obsessive reading and re-reading of Noel Streatfield books featuring troupes of child actors and dancers who all seemed to achieve celebrity with remarkable ease. Taking a break from Streatfield I became enthusiastically immersed in Pamela Brown’s Blue Door Theatre stories where neighbours living in an ordinary town in the South of England launched their own successful repertory theatre. If they could do it, why couldn’t I? The book characters were not particularly well off, the authors had gone to some pains to point this out but it was manifestly obvious that they were decidedly Middle Class and often their described Poverty could be firmly placed in the ranks of the One Servant Poor variety. In those years that followed the end of the War, coming from a Working Class background still held a great deal of stigma as far as progress through various career options. My own family circumstances made the Decent Working Classes look not only respectable and virtuous but also positively prosperous. I was very keen that my situation should at some stage, somehow or other change for the better. It might well be that Wombwell Hall could be the catalyst for this.

Happily it was being an Eleven Plus Failure that led to me finding myself there in the first place. When we got the good news that I had secured a place at The Local Technical School For Girls and my maternal grandmother, Old Nan Constant, had finished berating my mother for what she saw as the folly of Getting Involved With Yet Another Bleeding Senseless Highfaluting SCHOOL If You Don’t Mind, we went on the bus to Waterdales to visit Aunt Lou and Cousin Connie from my father’s side of the family. My cousin had been a Tech Girl for a year and would not only be able to fill me in with all the important details about the place but more importantly, be able to pass on her outgrown uniform.

When I finally began my first term in September that year I had firmed up considerably on my ideas about a career and sensibly decided that I needed to give more than cursory attention to shorthand and typing, not because I had any real intention of fulfilling my mother’s dream that I should become a shorthand typist which was a Nice, Clean Job where no hands became dirty in the execution of it, but because such skills might well prove useful to me if instead of actually starring on the West End stage I instead wrote the epics for others to star in. I wouldn’t be the first successful writer to master Shorthand. You only had to look at Charles Dickens and it probably wouldn’t have been beyond him to also become an accomplished typist which would have saved him a great deal of time, especially when you considered how long some of his novels were. I struggled to find other writers who could definitely write shorthand and type but this was long before Google and information was thin on the ground although I did stumble across Samuel Pepys briefly. At thirteen and a bit I found him boring and in any case decided it was doubtful if he was an aficionado of Isaac Pitman. Also he didn’t seem to quite be able to write Proper English which seemed odd to me at the time when you took into account how well known he seemed to be and how well regarded by some people who obviously didn’t mind being bored. More worrying to me was the fact that none of the characters created by Noel Streatfield and Pamela Brown seemed to go anywhere near a typewriter.

During my first few weeks at Wombwell Hall I was so completely captivated by the place that I spent a lot of time attempting to ensure that I would be the last student to leave a room in order to absorb as much of the the information from the past that still lingered in the walls as humanly possible. I trailed my fingers over windows and wondered if the glass panes were the very same as those one hundred years previously or if any had been replaced because someone was careless when playing Cricket. Sadly very little of this enormous enthusiasm I had for the house itself ever transferred into academic excellence of a general nature and I was for the most part a rather less than average student which my school reports, definitely indicated without any doubt whatsoever.

Although I was doing reasonably well in the commercial subjects in that I managed to hover around the middle of the class, I cannot honestly say I enjoyed what I was doing and the same went for most other subjects. History and Geography were both more than dull and Science was arduous and for me, difficult. I was absolutely no good at any kind of sports and generally quite frightened of taking risks and getting hurt although I could just about tolerate an occasional gentle game of hockey as long as I was allowed to play Right Wing. Mathematics remained a much hated mystery and French followed very closely behind, always threatening to overtake. Both subjects kept me awake at night as I fearfully contemplated how I could make myself invisible in the following day’s classes.

I remember very few of the teachers with any clarity. Miss Hart who reigned over Commercial Subjects still stands out because she was an eccentric character and hard to dislike. Furthermore she had an interesting wartime career in which she flew planes. I recall a little about Miss Springate whose subject was Geography and who always looked old and careworn except that she clearly didn’t like me and this might have had something to do with me being rude to her. I remember more about Miss Eatch, a History Teacher, because when she first came to the school she was so nervous I brutally manipulated a spiteful campaign to make her cry by the end of each lesson and rejoiced when she became our Form Teacher and could be further persecuted. Miss Norman, who taught Science, was also our Form Teacher for a year but I recall nothing about her except she may have had a Northern accent and she was appalled that we seemed to know nothing about Famous Romney Marsh Sheep – Our Very Own Kentish Variety. I did in fact know something about them from my reading of Monica Edwards books where Romney Marsh children had one adventure after another involving horses. It did not seem sensible to bring this up, however.

There were two members of the staff who still stand out with extraordinary clarity: the Miss Smiths! Miss S and Miss K who appeared to rapidly develop a close friendship demonstrated by their frequent walks around the grounds together during the lunch breaks, sometimes with arms linked, heads down and always deep in conversation. Valerie Goldsack who was definitely less na├»ve than the rest of us sniggered and said they were Women In Love. I, along with the majority of Form 2SC, had absolutely no idea what she meant. Miss S Smith was already at the school when I arrived in September 1953 and in fact was my 1SC Form Teacher for the first two terms. She taught both Games and French and because I found the former unbearably threatening and the latter unbearably challenging I tried as far as possible to make myself invisible within her classes and speak as little as possible. On my school reports she seems to have regarded me as lacking in confidence which I probably was and even if I wasn’t to be thought so was fine with me. The rather more wonderful Miss K Smith suddenly turned up at Wombwell Hall in the September of my second year and she taught only English. She was a quite superb and inspirational English teacher. That’s not to say that my marks in the subject suddenly rocketed sky high under her mentorship because they seem to have hovered perpetually around B minus which I still find disappointing. But despite my poor performance there was no doubt that Miss K Smith opened the door for me into a world of words I had not previously appreciated. She even gave me advice regarding having one of my short stories published but I now cannot remember what her advice was. In her class I did not hide among the sea of desks hoping not to be noticed but instead generally paid attention, was even industrious and actually tried to please her by producing commendable work.

My ambition at the age of fourteen had crystallised yet further and manifested itself by a secret burning desire to become famous. If I had to achieve that renown by producing Best Sellers then that’s what I would do, especially if it meant the approval of Miss K Smith, but it didn’t mean I had completely abandoned the desperate longing to also reach the dizzy heights of celebrity via Stage or Screen. As an ideal I tried to model myself on the Great Sarah Bernhardt followed by Dame Edith Evans but because my only experience of Live Theatre had been a single visit to the Christmas Pantomime at Chatham Empire, to keep the fantasy alive I was often reduced to lesser mortals such as Doris Day, Grace Kelly or Kim Novak all of whom I was much more familiar with from occasional cinema visits with Molly from 31 York Road.

Overall I decided that Acting would be in the long run more satisfying than Writing, though there seemed no real reason why I should not attempt to do both. Furthermore a career on the stage would undoubtedly prove less intensive than all that writing late at night. From what I could gather from the monthly Film Magazines purchased by Molly’s older sister Pam, once you achieved a certain level of Screen Stardom and became a household name, there was also a great deal of wining, dining and general socialising with other celebrities that took place not just in London but also in Paris, New York and Los Angeles. I was certainly keen on the idea of all this and during French Double Periods even planned my required wardrobe for these glittering occasions.

Because of my reading diet I still daydreamed constantly of somehow enrolling in a Stage School such as the Italia Conti school in Soho which I was sure would not only act as a launch pad for my stage or film career but also allow me to tap dance into the footlights via West End Musical Comedy productions. I was not entirely averse to the occasional Classical Ballet performance at Covent Garden also. I was completely undeterred by the fact that I had never attended a single dance class of any description and convinced that I would easily pick up the necessary skills when the time came. In the interim and to be on the safe side I did borrow a book from the library concerning basic ballet steps and positions and from time to time practised them in the privacy of my bedroom.

Very occasionally I foolishly brought up the subject of a stage career with my mother who simply looked at me in amazement and told me not to be So Bloody Daft. Once when the topic was spoken of in the presence of my grandmother I was advised that No Bugger Would Pay Tuppence To Watch a Great Nora Like Me, which was disheartening to say the least. But the desire for fame and fortune via the Arts did not diminish and was still burning as fiercely as ever when I reached my fifteenth birthday, although the threat of approaching mid year assessments concerning Pitmans and Typing Speeds meant a modicum of attention had to be paid to these skills. Miss Hart thumped the desk and with her Warning Boom Voice alerted us to the dire possibility of Not Being Good Enough for a Gravesend Office so we all knuckled down.

I drifted through the upper floors of Wombwell Hall during lunch breaks pretending I was taking part in a BBC production of Wuthering Heights, staring out of windows and turning the school gardener into Heathcliff with ease, feeling ever more alienated from my peers, all of whom seemed to accept the office future that was neatly mapped out for them. Increasingly desperate to confide in someone who might not only be helpful but also be impressed with my hopes for the future I at last decided to make Miss K Smith the recipient of my confidence. She often spoke about the theatre, told us how wonderful it was to go to performances at The Old Vic, urging us never ever to overlook William Shakespeare. Anxious for her approbation I had already learned half a dozen of his sonnets by heart desperately hoping she might ask the class if Anyone Was Familiar With Them. Had she done so I would have gladly forsaken Musical Comedy and Ballet for ever for a place in the Old Vic Company. So far she had disappointed me but surely once I fully acquainted her with my lofty ambitions she would undoubtedly see me as a kindred spirit and take me under her wing. Who knows I might even get to know her well enough to share a Saturday morning assignation over cups of Nescafe at The Copper Kettle, the stylish teashop in Cobham Village where Valerie Goldsack and her mother had noticed her one weekend. That’s if Valerie could actually be believed of course and you could not always depend on her.
I waylaid Miss K after a Double English Period when the rest of 2SC were rushing off for a Wednesday pre-lunch game of hockey. She and I were all at once alone together in the room that had been the Library of the old house. She wore a beautifully ironed white shirt under a beige Pringle cardigan. I had noticed the label in the cardigan a few days previously when she took it off and threw it carelessly over the back of a chair. I made a note then that at some stage I would somehow or other acquire a similar garment. It was a cardigan that those familiar with Shakespeare Sonnets might wear after all, with not a whiff of Marks & Spencers or British Home Stores about it.

She smiled kindly and asked what she could help me with. Verging on tears I said I was going to tell her an Important Secret and would she please never discuss it with others. I implored her for advice. How could I become an actress because that was what I wanted to do more than anything else in the world? And she didn’t laugh and tell me I was Dreaming, didn’t advise me to Pull Myself Together and Stop Behaving like a Twelve Year Old. Instead she sat half on the desktop beside me and listened, saying little but giving comforting little nods and was impressed when I told her about the six sonnets. She said that anything was possible and didn’t add Even for a Girl Like You. She warned it would mean a great deal of hard work. Twenty minutes later I adored her just a little more and felt abuzz with a new confidence knowing that I was definitely going to give Office Work a Huge Miss. I even tackled the Nile Delta in Geography after lunch with an enthusiasm that caused Miss Springate to glance at me oddly and ask if I was All Right. Next day at lunchtime when passing the two Miss Smiths on their linked arm stroll around the park I gave them both a dazzling smile and Miss K even smiled back. My regard for her could only increase with that momentary recognition of the Most Important Secret I had recently shared with her.

French was now indisputably my most hated subject but it was several days before the Deluge of Sadness and Desperation that I have never quite forgotten. It was my habit to always sit close to the corner in the second row from the back of the class and spend most of the lesson gazing over the heads of the other girls and through the tall windows of the Morning Room to the expanse of park beyond. It was also my habit to mutter an answer if called upon to respond to any question put to me in the much detested language. On the day in question at twenty minutes to three exactly Miss S Smith required a response to a query regarding buying what was needed for a picnic by some French River in some French Town. After a few seconds of shock, I mumbled as inaudibly as humanly possible.

Miss S rose from her seat at the desk at the front of the room and grew alarmingly in height. Her short black hair swung around her ears and she was unblinking as she looked at me in silence for at least thirty seconds. Then, with the faintest glimpse of a smile, she said very clearly and precisely: I understand you are the girl who thinks she is going to go on the stage, who in fact believes she might become a famous actress – well you’re certainly going to have to work on improving your diction before that can happen aren’t you?
The greatly despised Valerie Goldsack was the first to half cover her mouth and titter, followed by her faithful acolyte Julia Waghorn. The rest of them, nineteen girls in total, rapidly joined in the merriment.

Wednesday, 15 March 2017

Darnley Road, A Place For Better People!

My mother started working for the Lovells early in 1952. It was still winter and the reason I remember that is because to prepare for the walk to Darnley Road to apply for the job she first had to stuff cardboard into the winter boots my father had bought at the market. They had been a Christmas present that she commented Hadn’t Lasted Five Minutes. She had told him they weren’t going to be worth the twenty five bob he paid for them but he wouldn’t listen and bought them anyway. Boots were quite uncommon at that time and under normal circumstances she would have been pleased because they certainly looked sturdy and warm. It was early December and my parents were not really Speaking because of the Tarts and Fancy Pieces on the local buses. Nowadays you would say they were estranged but back then we didn’t really have estranged, we only had non communicative combat. The same day they shopped for the boots that fell to pieces so quickly they also bought Christmas presents for me and my brother – an Art Compendium in a smart blue box for me and a Junior Meccano set for my brother together with a number of second hand books from the bookstall just inside the main market building. They were Rupert Bear Annuals and several Chalet School stories. My Cousin Margaret told me on Christmas Day, after he was already dead and buried that my father always set great store by books and once he had given her one for her birthday only she forgot what it was called and what it was about. Old Nan said she could never understand why anyone would want books in the first place and she was surprised we didn’t catch something from them old fly-ridden ones because it Stood to Reason. I wondered if that was why he died and I asked her if she thought he had caught something from a book but she just told me to button my lip. It was a cold and miserable Christmas what with my mother crying all the time and telling my aunts she would never forgive herself for never forgiving him. It did no good, she said, falling out over something so nonsensical as They Knew What. They seemed to Know What but I didn’t Know What and wished that I did.

In January the snow began to fall and she said she had decided to get a Little Job because what the Widows’ Pension gave us would not be enough to Get By On. My Aunt Martha was also a widow and said she Got By All Right but I knew because I had been told often enough, that was because she got a War Pension on account of Uncle Paddy getting drunk when celebrating the end of the War and falling off a balcony in Italy to his death. You could easily Get By on a War Pension and that was the reason why my cousin Pat had hand knitted Angora trimmed boleros.

It had taken a great deal of courage to answer the advertisement in the Gravesend & Dartford Reporter and my mother had shown it to and discussed it with a number of neighbours and several of my aunts before summoning up the courage to call at the address in Darnley Road where the Lovells lived. One of the problems was that she had never before in her life applied for a job of any kind. She had grown up in a large and decidedly dysfunctional family that sat firmly at the very bottom of the English class system but she and her siblings had never been sent to work outside the family unit. They for the most part took work that involved all of them largely field work, agricultural labouring and later when their father showed an entrepreneurial spirit after a win at the races, as cold fish merchants, each one of the many daughters and one son working within the family business, generally for no remuneration. My mother and her sisters were expected to live at home until they married when they were handed over to the responsibility of their husbands. That was simply the way it worked, a family group that without doubt nurtured an ever pervading familial distrust of each other yet were stuck together like glue. So, as I said, applying for a job in the same manner as the rest of society required a certain amount of mettle.

Old Nan, hunched over the first roll-up of the day said going for a Charring Job meant she needed her bleeding noddle examined and Aunt Mag observed rather more sensibly that the job would surely be gone to some other silly bugger by now but she was wrong because the woman who had initially been hired had inexplicably not turned up on the first Monday. In fact Mrs Lovell had just been about to re-advertise the position, but instead she immediately offered it to my mother, Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays each week from nine until one, for two shillings an hour, an amount of extra cash that would make life a great deal easier for us. The Lovells lived in what I thought at the time was an exceptionally upmarket and lavish home with panes of coloured glass in the front door and a grand hallway partly paved with little black and white tiles. It was in every way superior to the houses at the bottom of Iron Mill Lane, Crayford, where all my aunts now lived in homes built in the 1920s as part of an early Council estate. The aunts all had entrance halls too; spaces much coveted by me with hooks on the wall where you could hang coats and enough room for Wellington Boots on the floor and in Aunt Mag’s case my cousin Margaret’s doll’s pram too. They also had inside bathrooms and none of my cousins needed to huddle into winter coats and hurry through the backyard to visit the lav after dark in winter. Until I ventured inside the Darnley Road residence of the Lovells I had thought the houses in Iron Mill Lane, conveniently close to The Three Jolly Farmers, were the epitome of social success and had decided that once I was grown up they were where I wanted to live. The Lovells of Darnley Road changed all that. My mother had been working for them for over a year and was much enamoured of the family when I was allowed to accompany her to help with the spring cleaning. My job was going to be polishing the silver.

Mr Lovell was a Solicitor and I was told he was a Very Clever Man and it was quite understandable that he sometimes Got The Hump because he had a lot on his mind and a great deal of responsibility what with his job and all that. There were three grown up children. One was Mr Christopher who was also a solicitor and he worked with his Dad but he went to work earlier so he went on a bike. There was a daughter called Miss Brenda who was a Proper Midwife and that took a lot of studying too because you were allowed to deliver babies all by yourself almost like a Doctor did. That gave me food for thought because Old Alice who for five bob came and delivered most of the babies in York Road also cleaned up and made the breakfast porridge if required to and I couldn’t imagine Miss Brenda doing that. I also thought her charges might be higher. When I pointed this discrepancy out I was told that Miss Brenda would be delivering the babies of Toffs and she was nothing like Old Alice whatsoever. Then there was Lawrence Lovell, the youngest who was Up At University and Very Clever though there had been a bit of a Rumpus recently because he Fell Out with his Dad on account of wanting to be a ballet dancer but then he did seem to be a Silly Young Bugger. He was obviously a Silly Young Bugger because one morning when his brother Mr Christopher had missed something on the BBC News, Young Lawrence had rung the BBC up on the telephone and asked them if they would mind repeating it. They took no notice of him though – well they wouldn’t would they? The Falling Out over becoming a Ballet Dancer happened when they were having their dinner because Mr Lovell came home every day at dinner time only they all called it Luncheon and sometimes just Lunch. Very harsh words were spoken that day. Three days each week my mother prepared the luncheon and had it ready by twelve fifteen and usually she cleared the dining room afterwards but Mrs. Lovell did the washing up herself most of the time and used yellow rubber gloves to save her hands. My mother was not totally enamoured of the meals she was asked to prepare and said in her opinion they were not Much Cop but the dining room itself was really lovely and I should just see the Silver, it must be Worth its Weight In Gold. So as you can imagine I was really looking forward to my cleaning job.

Mrs Lovell was a large and untidy woman with a booming voice which I could see she was attempting to moderate on my behalf so within minutes I stopped being completely terrified of her and gave her the benefit of my Learned From The BBC mode of speaking which I could tell slightly startled her. A little later in a telephone call with someone that might even have been her husband, she talked about someone being a Frightfully Funny Little Thing and Strangely Well Spoken Under the Circumstances, so I knew perfectly well she was talking about me and I was as Old Nan would undoubtedly have said, as Pleased As Punch. As we were engaged in the annual Spring Clean we were not going to leave at one o`clock as was usual but would stay until five, me just for one day but my mother for the whole week. She was delighted and told me it would put a Fair Few Bob More in her pocket and we might even be able to manage a week in a caravan down at Swalecliffe for Easter if We Were Lucky because God Knows we could all Do With A Holiday after all. I fervently hoped we would not be too lucky because for various reasons I detested the Swalecliffe caravan holidays. Today I sat in the back kitchen with the dining room silver on an old blanket in front of me and applied myself to vigorously cleaning and shining, determined to impress my employer who had already told me I would have two whole shillings all for myself if I did the job properly. The array of cutlery shone brilliantly by eleven am when I could hear my mother beginning to prepare the Macaroni Cheese that was going to be served for Luncheon followed by Stewed Plums. I didn’t know much about Macaroni Cheese that was clearly something Posh people ate but I liked Stewed Plums.

Mrs Lovell, as I had both predicted and intended, was more than satisfied with my efforts when she examined the silver and she suggested that after Luncheon I should make a start on the copper ornaments on the Dining Room Mantelpiece. I readily agreed and she said that she was going to ask Mr Lovell for his approval for raising my two whole shillings to three whole shillings because I seemed to be such a Splendid Little Worker. I told her it was a pleasure to be able to help. Then she took me into the Dining Room and gave instructions as to how to lay the table with the newly gleaming cutlery which I was entirely thrilled to do and immediately began to plan how I was going to tell Molly of 31 York Road all about it, in the greatest possible detail, possibly exaggerating just a little. The Dining Room was overwhelmingly impressive with a floor that seemed to be made out of little wooden tiles which Mrs Lovell told me was called Parquet, and a high ceiling almost like a Church. The oval table was of what seemed to me to be of vast proportions and I counted a total of eight curved back chairs around it, each with its own dark red velour seat. I told Mrs Lovell her Dining Room was quite the grandest I had ever seen, and tried to make it sound as if I had Seen a Lot in My Time, which of course I had not. She said it was very kind of me to make such complimentary comments – she greatly appreciated them. I skipped into the kitchen to inform my mother how well I had done to lay the impressive table for Luncheon For Five, to which she replied that I had got it wrong because Miss Brenda and Young Lawrence were not home so it was only Lunch For Three so to curb my tongue because I wasn’t nearly as Smart as I thought I was. Taken aback by this I referred back to Mrs Lovell, not skipping this time and in the politest BBC tones enquired if I had got the Five For Luncheon wrong on account of the missing Miss Brenda and Young Lawrence. She laughed and reassured me there would definitely be Five For Lunch and had I completely forgotten Mrs Hendy and myself? In that moment I became so totally suffused with Joy that it was like being bathed with a deep and penetrating saturation of sunlight. I was actually going to eat Luncheon! Not just Dinner like at home, but proper Luncheon and never mind if it was sometimes merely called Lunch, just like a person in a book! And not some ordinary everyday kind of Lunch either, but one in a Dining Room with a Parquet Floor and a very, very high ceiling just like a Church – AND with a real silver knife and fork! Who cared if it was something only posh people ate called Macaroni Cheese because I would definitely manage to force it down no matter what it tasted like. I skipped happily back to the kitchen to tell my mother just how wrong she had been.

To my abject horror she did not react well. No, no, NO, she told me in the kind of voice I knew Brooked No Argument, we would NOT be eating Luncheon in the Dining Room – Whatever Next? We would be having our Macaroni Cheese and Stewed Plums in the kitchen and I was to Button My Lip at once and Not Even Think of Talking Back and Giving Cheek or I would be getting the Biggest Backhander of my life later on Nothing was Surer than that!

Later on, walking home she said that I’d Knocked Her For Six with that nonsensical talk about eating in the Dining Room and why on earth did I always seem to go out of my way to bring Shame on her at every turn. Why couldn’t I be like Other Girls? Like Molly Freeman or Joan Bennet or June Dawson – even Kathleen Draper or Pat Turner? All of them were a Credit to their Mothers but not me! I always had to Stick My Neck Out and Go One Further didn’t I? I always had to Argue The Toss. Nothing was Ever Right for me was it? If I carried on like this she would Have Me Put Away if it was the Last Thing She Ever Did!
I felt incensed with a combination of fury and indignation and as we got closer to home and were passing The Dover Castle in Dover Road, and she had finally stopped berating me, I firmly clutched the three silver shillings in my pocket and risked asking why it had been so wrong to want to eat Luncheon in the Dining Room because after all, we had been invited to. She looked directly at me, bracing herself into the bitter Spring wind looking suddenly tired and old. She slightly shook her head and didn’t shout. She said, `Because they aren’t the same sort of people as the likes of us are they? Get that into your noddle for once. They’re just a Better Sort of People than us.’

Thursday, 9 March 2017

Auntie Queenie of Stonebridge Road, Northfleet

If I am not mistaken there seems to be a growing delight and satisfaction in the burgeoning publicity pertaining to all matters transgender these days and I imagine for those immediately involved in defining sexual category on a regular basis that must be rewarding, a step forward. On local radio, excited discussions frequently emerge on the possible complications regarding such topics as Gender Neutral toilets, particularly in schools where it seems mounting numbers of under tens are now in the throes of personal discussion around whether they are male or female and what their preference might be. Thoroughly modern up-to-date parents appear to take this process of decision making in their stride, insisting that the choice has to be made by the six year old him/herself and displaying to one and all that they are completely at peace with what would certainly have been a very unusual and disturbing problem sixty or seventy years ago. Had I been thrust into such a situation as a primary age child although I would have found it quite thrilling to choose a new name, which in my case might well have been Sebastian, I cannot imagine my parents being at ease with the dilemma on any level whatsoever.

In those first few years after the War, we like scores of other families around us were certainly not in any danger of becoming progressive thinkers particularly where matters associated with sex and gender were concerned. Accepting the customary developments and practices alongside being male or female was hard enough - to add a further dimension was simply out of the question. To harbour someone within your immediate family who was afflicted with a problem relating to sexual identity of any description was a horror hard to imagine and discussion around the subject was inclined to be insufferably shameful rather than simply awkward. There was therefore no open debate and very little closed debate concerning those among us who might ultimately turn out to identify simply as Gay or Lesbian which must have made some lives within the community harder than they really needed to be. We children were all expected to conform to standard norms in every way, playing together in amorphous groups, boys mostly with boys and girls mostly with girls. Although some girls were indulgently allowed to be Tomboys, boys who were clearly a great deal more comfortable playing with the girls rather than boys were frowned upon, tut tutted about and given footballs and motor cycle magazines for Christmas. It was also anticipated that we would each of us make one or two Best Friends with whom confidences could be shared and of whom our parents would largely approve and those who failed to attract Best Friends were a disappointment and might even be castigated for the social failure.

The parameters around social acceptance as far as adults were concerned were even more stringent. Little wonder that poor Auntie Queenie of Stonebridge Road set tongues wagging so violently. She seemed destined to always cause a stir wherever she went. As my Aunts all agreed, you could never rely on her to keep her head down. I never quite knew how she was related to us because she wasn’t a subject that anyone cared to speak of in any depth but she was definitely a relative from my mother’s side of the family because at one time Aunts Mag, Martha, Maud, Rose and Freda were all more than familiar with her and when her name was mentioned they each sniffed a bit and tried to change the subject – even Freda. She always seemed to be quite an old lady to me, but decidedly eccentric and with attitude which of course would be one of the reasons why my grandmother disliked her so much.

She had lived in Crayford at one time but left because of some social misdemeanour and her leaving caused Old Nan to loudly proclaim that The Day That Dirty Doxie Left Was A Day For A Knees Up. She moved quite close to us to a couple of upstairs rooms in the house that took in long term lodgers on Stonebridge Road, Northfleet where one of her neighbours she was proud to relate was Young Arthur Greenslade who ultimately became a famous pianist and conductor. She had actually spoken with both him and his mother several times. Aunt Mag said they would have crossed the road to avoid her if they had Known Anything About Her. But she only said that later of course. My mother agreed adding that People Like Queenie Ought To Be Kept Away From Normal Folk and her roaming all over the place just wasn’t right.

Meeting her outside the Northfleet Council Offices one afternoon my mother pretended to be pleased to see her and asked why she’d decided to come to Northfleet and Queenie lit a fresh cigarette and waved it in the air, pursing very red lips saying she wanted to be close to Huggens College because she’d Had Her Name Down for a while now. My mother generally pretended to be delighted when she came across Queenie but I knew it was all an act because if she dropped by our place, I would more than likely be told to be very quiet because we were going to pretend we were not at home. As far as Huggens College was concerned Aunt Martha said they’d never let the likes of her through the gates because places like that were for the Toffs and everybody knew that. I asked if Auntie Queenie was a Toff but I was ignored.

She always designed and made her own Outfits because she said she had always been Fussy About Clothes and the garments she wore were so colourful and adorned with so many beads and trailing pieces of silk and chiffon, she always managed to look as if she had stepped out of the Chatham Empire Christmas Pantomime. When she was younger she had even been on The Halls dressed as a man and singing songs like Burlington Bertie which Old Nan said suited her down to the ground and Oh Yes, She Was Right Where She Wanted To Be Then. This was confusing because my grandmother had done a fair bit of singing for money herself when she’d had a skinfull, though she stuck more to cinema queues and pubs on a Saturday night. Auntie Queenie wore exotic hats with veils attached over her very long and very red hair that my mother said was Not Natural, making it sound like an adjunct to her unfortunate Condition because on the occasions when she came under the scrutiny of whispered discussion she was always described first and foremost as Not Natural. Old Nan said she was Dyed Up To The Eyeballs and always maintained that the basic problem was most likely due to something that had Happened to her Poor Mother when she was Carrying but wouldn’t go further than that because she’d never been one to gossip. But then Old Nan was given to saying a lot of things that turned out not to be totally true.

Whatever it was that so sadly divided Auntie Queenie from the rest of the family and couldn’t be spoken of, we children were absolutely certain of one thing. We must Never, Ever Go Into a Lavatory with her. Until the moment I was given this particular directive it had never occurred to me to do so but of course from then on I was driven to distraction by curiosity as were all my cousins except Margaret who was older and sensible and about to get a job in Dolcis in Dartford. On an afternoon visit to our place with her mother my cousin Pat wanted to know what she should do if she was Busting To Go and was told to Just Bust which was of course disappointing. Aunt Martha related, in a suitably low voice, to my mother that she had been forced into that very position on Gravesend Prom one Sunday afternoon, coming across Queenie out of the blue who she was sure had Had One Or Two. Anyhow, whether she had or not, after two cups of tea from that fella who ran the tea-stand with the striped awning, where they sold iced buns as well, they were both of them Busting. Like it or not she found herself inside the Public Conveniences with Queenie who was Bold as Brass about it. Wouldn’t you think that she would have more idea of what was decent? More consideration for others, for Normal People, but No – Not Her! Pat and I exchanged Looks whilst my mother commiserated and said she would have been All Of A Fluster if it had been her and wouldn’t have known where to put herself and that Queenie had always been Known for being a Brazen Cow which given her situation could only make you Wonder. She reminded Martha that their only brother, my Uncle Edgar had come across her actually Piddling up against a wall at the bottom of Harmer Street one Friday night and he could always be relied upon; he’d never been known to tell a lie. After all, he’d been at Dunkirk hadn’t he? They agreed that when it came to being Bold as Brass and Brazen, Queenie was right there at the front of the queue. Never forget there’d been that airman she’d met out Shears Green way at the Battle of Britain when it first opened, the Poor Bugger she’d led up the garden path with all her talk of going to live in Swanscombe. Look where that got her. He’d had the wool pulled over his eyes good and proper hadn’t he? My mother poured more tea and said it fairly made her hair stand on end just to think about it; in fact it didn’t bear thinking about at all.

When the Aunt and Cousin had been despatched on the bus back to Iron Mill Lane, Crayford, and I had gone back to my Circus Colouring Book because it always paid to be half engaged in something inoffensive when asking questions on matters that might be deemed offensive, I asked my mother what made Auntie Queenie Bold as Brass when going into the Public Lavatory with Aunt Martha. But the only reply I got was that I had Big Ears and should not be listening to things that didn’t concern me and I would Feel The Back Of Her Hand if I wasn’t careful. So I stopped because the back of her hand could be painful. However, the next time a Family Day Out to Southend was suggested I was most enthusiastic. A Day Out was in itself something of a treat particularly as we would undoubtedly at some stage find ourselves at The Kursaal where more than likely we would come across Auntie Queenie herself selling candy floss or raffle tickets which she often did at fun fairs and circuses. Aunt Mag said this was because nobody in their right mind who ran a decent business would give the likes of her a job and you couldn’t blame them could you? Old Nan said that it was because she was a Bleeding Freak Show In Herself but because we were standing waiting for the Tilbury ferry at the time, her daughters quelled her with hostile looks which wasn’t easy because she was not known to be easily quelled. Later on she insisted it was no exaggeration and May the Lord Strike Her Dead if she was telling a lie and that even the Hospital up in London had taken photos of her Down Below, regular as clockwork, Year In and Year Out. I listened to all of this with the greatest interest whilst pretending to examine a poster extolling the virtues of a Day At Southend On Sea.
It was a bitterly cold Spring day when our ungainly family group comprising of Old Nan, all the Aunts, most of the cousins and even several Uncles either on Shift Work or Out Of Work emerged from the station, my father leading the way because his love of fun fairs was great. But first of all we had to eat our picnic on the beach, huddled against the groynes in a brutal and penetrating wind and then there was a lunchtime visit to the pub so that the men and Nan could down a pint. But eventually we headed in the direction of The Kursaal, at that time quite the largest fun fair in the South of England and mid afternoon found it relatively empty with no queues for the rides. However, as afternoon turned to evening the crowds would grow thick, the laughter loud and the music deafening. The men with the teenage boys close behind headed for the shooting range, the women to the ghost train and most of the children to the roundabouts and swingboats where Auntie Queenie could be found Large as Bleeding Life according to my grandmother, and with no shame on her, dispensing Candy Floss with her coils of hair redder than ever and a big smile on her face. She seemed surprised to be immediately enveloped by an eager group of female relatives under twelve greeting her with an enthusiasm that was clearly unusual and causing her to hug each one of us hard and say how lovely to was to see us all. Our mothers, some still in the ghost train tunnels, but some hard on our heels were visibly less excited to come across her and later Old Nan claimed you could have knocked her down with a feather but that was undoubtedly an exaggeration.
As soon as we had eaten our free candy floss which Cousin June said was all very nice but Auntie Queenie had made sure she gave us very small portions which went to show that she was Tight, just like our grandmother said, a chorus arose. We all needed to Do A Wee – and it was urgent because we were all Busting to go and did Auntie Queenie know where the Lav was and if she did could she take us? Margaret, about to have her sixteenth birthday, stared around at us coldly disapproving as Queenie rose to the occasion and ignoring protests from our mothers, collected us up like some kind of colourful Kursaal Pied Piper. We skipped along behind her in a flurry of excitement. To our great disappointment she simply directed us into separate cubicles and we did not get the slightest glimpse of her underwear which June had said would most likely differ substantially from anything our own mothers might wear and be a most unlikely colour – even perhaps black satin. Mostly our mothers wore voluminous white or peach winceyette bloomers at the time, from Gravesend market, elasticated at the knee. Auntie Queenie stood waiting patiently with Little Ann and Little Violet, the last two To Go as the rest of us strained to produce trickles and by the time we re-emerged several mothers were hovering anxiously. My own painfully pinched my arm hissing through clenched teeth that she had told me again and again Never Ever to go into a Lav with Auntie Queenie and why didn’t I ever listen because when we got home she was going to give me What For.

Despite all our best efforts we seemed destined never to solve the mysterious scandal closely associated with Public Conveniences that clearly revolved around Auntie Queenie though Pat and June maintained it was simply that her tits were not in the right place – they were hanging down round by her bum. Little Violet thought that must be wrong because how did she feed her babies if her tits were not in the usual place? June said people like her never had babies anyway. Little Violet wanted to know why. Margaret said that tits being in the wrong place could happen to anybody but she wasn’t going to join in the conversation any further because it Wasn’t Right and we had no right to be discussing other people’s tits in the first place. Some People, she added mysteriously were just Different and there wasn’t anything that could be done about it.
I was still consumed with an insatiable curiosity. It was to be years before I would discover that our extremely exotic and exceedingly eccentric Aunt, who could always be relied upon to give rise to rumour and gossip and whose real name was not Queenie at all but Victoria Eugenie Dorothea, was in fact a True Hermaphrodite and had indeed at one stage been of enormous interest to and greatly photographed by the Medical Profession.

Monday, 6 March 2017

Colyer Road School & The Silver Lurex Jacket

Nobody had much in the way of luxuries when I was growing up. When I was very small there wasn’t much to buy anyway so you could say it was a level playing field as far as items of clothing were concerned. Most children had school clothes which might even be a uniform of some kind like Wendy Maxted and Margaret Snelling who both seemed to own gymslips. We all had something rather smarter for Best or simply for Sundays. A few of the boys in particular had very shabby Saturday outfits long discarded from older brothers that were ideal for climbing up and down the chalk pits at the back of the Springhead Road houses.

None of this mattered much whilst we were under twelve and in any case it didn’t apply to everyone because there were women who were superb dressmakers and in the latter years of the nineteen forties, could make smart Sunday two piece outfits for their daughters out of old coats that with the addition of a simple trim lifted the garment and their wearers to dizzy Parisian heights. Well so it seemed to me at the time. The wearers were girls I greatly envied who wore felt bonnets to school and hand knitted angora boleros on Sundays. The ones who inspired the greatest admiration and jealousy were Rita Jenkins of Shepherd Street and Barbara Scutts of Springhead Road. To add insult to injury these two most fortunate pre-adolescents were often seen wearing shiny black patent leather shoes on special occasions.

My own mother could and did knit and in fact she was quite enthusiastic with wool and needles. Her overall ability, however, was poor and she had an unfortunate habit of ignoring minor hiccups such as needle size and dropped stitches. Consequently most items produced were even to my untrained eye, unwearable. Decades later I was dismayed to discover she was still producing similar garments for two of my cousin Ann’s young children who I could not help noticing also observed the progress of their winter sweaters with fascination and horror.

All in all as I grew up, like most of my schoolmates, I was resigned to being badly dressed. It seemed to be our lot in life. And to be fair the greater proportion of our mothers were equally poorly attired because those were the days when women seemed to be perpetually clad in shape disguising Aprons of indeterminate patterns that could be bought in British Home Stores for three shillings and sixpence apiece or in Gravesend market for two and threepence. Headscarves tied factory fashion around their heads for the most part avoided the necessity for well groomed hair and make-up for every day did not seem to be on the agenda although I do recall my mother occasionally dabbing Velouty For Beauty on her cheeks. A few years later curlers were worn under the headscarves giving a bulky and more awkward look that nevertheless hinted of party time ahead. That was not actually the case, festivities rarely came to pass and mostly the curlers simply stayed in for days on end.

After the death of my father our life of poverty and deprivation sank to a new level and I quickly realised that becoming a local symbol of teenage fashion was not going to happen for me. The advent of the nineteen fifties coincided with a slightly elevated range of goods in the shops and on market stalls such as somewhat frivolous rayon underwear in extraordinary colours like orange and mauve and popper beads in a range of hues that were so enticing I became consumed with owning such items. I would most definitely have resorted to organised theft had I not been so frightened of the consequences.

Post war Britain was looking brighter for most people but generally speaking life was getting worse for our family. When other girls managed to persuade their mothers to buy black ballerina flats from the shoe shop in Gravesend High Street I knew better than to even ask. At that stage I had one pair of shoes, dark brown lace ups that were mended again and again by Mr Hammond in Shepherd Street until I grew out of them when they were put aside in the hope that my brother would grow into them. Even at seven and eight years of age he looked decidedly nervous about this idea.

When I began to earn my own money, shortly before my sixteenth birthday, I headed directly into Gravesend each Saturday morning to spend it at British Home Stores and Woolworths. I thereby accumulated a quantity of orlon cardigans in pastel colours and cotton skirts most of which became limp and unsightly after their first wash. I was not overly concerned about quality because the ability to actually purchase an item of clothing new, at will, made me dizzy with pleasure.
When I was younger most of what I wore had been passed on via cousins on both sides of the family and as the majority were girls by and large I did better than poor Bernard who got very dejected at having to wear a succession of female jackets and raincoats with the buttons always on the Wrong Side. I had no idea how deeply this state of affairs affected him, however until a few months before his death in April 2016 when he revealed to me the Unhappy Tale of the Silver Lurex Jacket with the Black Velvet Collar.

He was apparently in his third year at Colyer Road School so not exactly a new boy. He had long grown out of the school uniform passed on by a Buckingham Road neighbour. Fashions for males were changing fast along with everyday events in the local community. I had already left to find a Fast Life in London and things were definitely not as they used to be! A six foot conger eel had been found at Northfleet Power Station, then in the process of being rebuilt and there was even talk of St Botolph’s Vicarage being demolished. Members of the local Youth For Nuclear Disarmament were about to maintain a twenty four hour vigil at the Clock Tower in honour of the dead of Hiroshima and local teenagers were told the group was an Inspiration but Bernard was in no mood to join them. More pertinent to him was the fact that Colyer Road School was about to trial a period of Mufti and there had been a great deal of discussion between boys and staff as to what constituted Suitable School Clothing. Smart Casual appeared to be the order of the day and during his wanderings past the men’s outfitters in Perry Street and Gravesend my brother had totally acquainted himself with what that particular Look demanded. The only problem was how to secure it, particularly as his available funds did not even stretch to a trim never mind a re-style at Wandings the Barbers or even an after school helping of chips from Lads’ Fish & Chips nearby.

He no longer remembered who had passed on to him the Silver Lurex jacket but he vividly recalled that it closely resembled a much coveted item displayed in the window of a store in Gravesend High Street. His heart missed a number of beats in his delirium of joy when it was bestowed upon him and it mattered little that the garment was several sizes too big for him. Old Nan told him in no uncertain terms that he looked like Some Pearly Bleedin’ King in it and even my mother regarded it with more than a modicum of doubt. However, knowing how unlikely it would have been for her to ever countenance such a purchase, even in the unlikely event of him ever managing to attain the required six pounds seven shillings and sixpence her reservations were completely ignored. In fact so impatient was he to show it off he could not be dissuaded from giving it its first outing by wearing it to school the very next day. He was confident that the Jacket in all its Lurex glory was fundamentally so stylish that all his school mates and probably a sizeable chunk of the staff as well, would be green with envy. For once in his life he, Bernard John Hendy of 28 York Road, Northfleet would be seen as a trend setter in the area of male fashion.

He blissfully contemplated the possible secondary effects of the newly elevated position among his peers the Jacket would undoubtedly ensure. An invitation to join the In-Crowd for Saturday night dancing sessions at the Co-op in Harmer Street? Very likely! He would, of course, first have to learn a few dance steps but clad in Silver Lurex that should not be beyond him. Even his ability to absorb subjects like Mathematics might now be possible earning him unexpected respect from the Maths teacher …… `Applying yourself at last Hendy. I always knew you had it in you….’ The pleasing possibilities were boundless.
The fact that the first wearing coincided with the Headmaster’s Monday Morning Assembly rhetoric on Clothing Suitable for the Schoolroom he felt was fortunate – indeed fortuitous . He was still beaming with shimmering pride and superiority when he was called onto the rostrum as a demonstration of what must surely be Outstanding Schoolboy Sophistication. He obligingly turned a full circle and slightly lifted his arms in order that the full Glory of the Garment should be revealed. It was some minutes before he realised that he was being held to ridicule and that he might possibly be alone in believing that Silver Lurex trimmed with velvet came anywhere close to good taste even within the Colyer Road Schoolboy Fraternity of 1961.

My brother was an exceptional raconteur and we both laughed heartily when he recounted this probably slightly exaggerated story of youthful folly. Even so, it was all too evident that despite the passing of the decades and regardless of the material success that had befallen him in the ensuing years, at the age of sixty seven he was still more than a little distressed relating it.