Saturday, 29 April 2017

Adjusting What The Doctor Ordered

Our doctor was always Dr Outred of De Warren House on the London Road. My mother maintained he was definitely the best doctor in the area, much better than Dr Crawford on The Hill and that was because he was a surgeon as well as being an ordinary run-of-the-mill doctor and that signalled being Extra Special! That’s not to say that we were in the habit of consulting him all that frequently because back in those days it cost half a crown a visit and that meant the benefits of each possible consultation had to be weighed carefully in advance. Not something to be rushed into. So when my mother had some kind of abscess in her throat during the winter of 1942 she put up with it for several days before consulting Dr Outred who apparently swiftly lanced it giving her a story to dine out on for several years to come, had she been in the habit of dining out which of course she was not. The lancing, she informed anyone who would listen, was on account of him being a Surgeon and possessed of a certain amount of skill with several varieties of blade. Subsequent to the drama of the lancing she felt so much better that her overall faith in him increased mightily.

He then had the foresight to add to his overall mystique by saving my life when I was four years old and suffering from Pneumonia. I should explain that it was not even Ordinary Pneumonia either, but the Double variety and although I have never been entirely clear about what separates the Ordinary from the Double, the dramatic event itself I actually remember with reasonable clarity. I had been put to bed in my pink and cosy winceyette nightgown well wrapped in blankets with the added precaution of a roaring fire in my bedroom. Feeling decidedly unwell I idly observed the giant sized wooden Dutch Dolls that entered the room carrying a trestle table which they set up at the bottom of my bed before calmly and methodically consuming the contents of a wicker hamper. I watched in fascination as they munched their way through a number of pink iced cakes decorated with cherries, aware that had I been feeling just a little better I might well have been envious. My mother hovered over me with hot lemon juice laced with honey and at some stage my condition was deemed to be such that Old Mr Bassant from next door went to call for the doctor to come which perhaps meant crossing the road to Simms’ shop to use the telephone. By the time he arrived I was sitting on the curtain rail above my own bed, alongside a number of hunched and ugly shiny bronze goblin-like creatures that I remember thinking looked about the size of those strange individuals who lived inside the wireless in the kitchen, those that read the news and told jokes that made the grown-ups laugh. Perhaps they were indeed from the wireless because it was feasible now I had become much smaller that I would soon be going to live with them on the shelf in the corner of the kitchen next to the scullery door. I hoped I would be able to still see my mother from inside the wireless. It was possible that the front panel also contained a window big enough for those inside to observe what was going on in the parallel world of full-size humankind. I certainly hoped so.

And while these jumbled thoughts occupied me I calmly witnessed Special Dr Outred who was also a Surgeon peeling the layers of clothing from me and looking disapprovingly at the banked up fire before striding to the window beneath me and to my mother’s horror opening it wide. Even the goblin people muttered to each other when that happened. Then I was given a most Magical injection of what was described to the neighbours the following day as a Wonder Drug. My life had been saved and I then recovered in a most remarkable manner.

All in all during those wartime years my mother felt she had a lot to thank Dr Outred for although later when he killed my father she naturally enough changed her mind and never felt quite the same about him again. To be completely fair it was Old Nan who first decided that he had been responsible for my father’s death by Pissing About instead of sending him Over the Orspital where apparently they would have Sorted Him in No Time. All this was of course in the future and should not concern us at the moment because for the purposes of this particular narrative, Dr Outred still maintains his elevated position which was close to the Blessed Saints themselves.

In those days a number of family doctors did their own dispensing and ours was one of them. Patients were not handed their medicines at the time of consultation and were required to return for them later when they would be ready on the table in the general waiting room in rows of boxes and bottles labelled with names. This meant that typically the table hosted an interesting range of potions and multi-coloured pills awaiting collection by a steady stream of the sick or their envoys. It was a reasonably seamless system.

One particular visit to the surgery at De Warren House, London Road, stands out very well indeed because my mother for some reason wanted to speak to Dr Outred without me by her side and so she left me in the waiting room with a Beano comic to occupy me. Many years later I came to understand that this consultation had something to do with my father recently being briefly Home On Leave and some kind of nasty infection that had passed from him to her. Strangely, on that chilly winter evening we were the only patients and when the Beano comic’s attraction began to pall I turned my attention to the eye-catching array of medications awaiting collection. There were pills of every hue in some of the little glass bottles as well as the standard and exceedingly dull white ones and also tall bottles of red, blue and green tonics and cough mixtures. As I studied them it began to seem very unfair to me that some specifically selected people who were undoubtedly Special like the doctor himself, were given a whole bottle of red pills or blue ones whilst other lesser mortals were destined to merely receive the white ones. Some years later when Papa’s Ice Cream Parlour Over-the-Town began to make a range of flavours once more, I likened this particular situation to being doled out vanilla ice cream when others were lucky enough to receive chocolate or strawberry because we all knew that vanilla was definitely not a real flavour at all but just another way of saying Plain. However that comparison was yet to come as at the time of my mother’s tearful consultation Papa was still simply serving cups of tea and broken biscuits and I don’t think I had experienced the joys of ice cream of any variety but that’s probably beside the point.

That early winter evening in 1944 no matter which way I looked at it, I felt that a grave injustice was being done to some of Dr Outred’s faithful followers so I decided with all the wisdom of a four year old, that it was up to me to bring some balance to the situation. With the waiting room still eerily empty I began a redistribution of the pills by first emptying all the containers and then methodically refilling them so that each recipient would now get at least one or two of the nicely coloured ones. Quite an effort was involved but by the time I had finished and turned my attention to the more complex problem of the bottled liquids, not one of the Northfleet sick that evening would suffer the indignity of having to swallow Vanilla Pills. Relishing my new role as a Junior Warrior for Justice I was in no doubt that they would be quite delighted although in the furthest recesses of my mind there began a slight uncertainty with regard to how the doctor himself might view the matter.

Almost as soon as that misgiving occurred to me I was left in no doubt as to his position on the matter and even after all these years I cannot forget the look of disbelief and fury on his face. I knew he was itching to take to me physically because his hands, at the level of my shoulders, clenched and unclenched as he hissed at me. He said that I was a totally irresponsible and ill-disciplined child and that my wayward behaviour would result in a lot of extra work for him. My mother, horrified and increasingly tearful, repeatedly apologised for me. That behaviour wasn’t like me, apparently because usually I was as Good as Gold. He looked as if he did not believe her and said something about me needing Much Firmer Guidance and she assured him she was going to Give Me What For when I got home. I rather imagined he seemed just a little placated when she said that.

She talked about the What For I was going to get all the way back along London Road and down Springhead Road which didn’t make the walk home very pleasant, especially when she promised it would be the Hiding of my Life. I tried in vain to broach the issue of Natural Justice when it came to those who were unfairly doled out Vanilla Pills but she just didn’t seem to be interested.

Thursday, 20 April 2017

Navigating Northfleet High Street

If we went shopping in Gravesend my mother always told me that we were going Over-the-Town and usually we took a bus there and back. Shopping in Northfleet meant we were going Down-The-High-Street and invariably we walked. When I was very young, perhaps five, six or seven years old this was quite a trek and my heart would sink at the thought but there was no point in arguing and suggesting a bus ride because I knew we weren’t Made Of Money. We would set off directly after our midday dinner armed with shopping bags, one made of string and that was the one I might be allowed to carry later.
Usually I was already complaining by the time we had walked up Springhead Road and reached The Hill where we might well Run-Into a neighbour returning from the very same mission and this meant stopping for a chat. The chat one day with Grace Bennett was about bananas because Ripleys had them, causing great excitement and her Joan was going to have one on toast for her tea. The thing I remember most vividly about Ripleys is the staff member with hair the colour of Kentish Cobnuts who smiled a great deal, flashing beguiling glimpses of gold teeth. I remember nothing of the bananas except being told that Joan Bennett getting a whole one on her toast meant she was Spoilt-Rotten.

On we walked, past Dr Crawford’s surgery in Granby Place, past Horlocks garage and St Botolph’s Vicarage, behind grey walls and almost but not quite hidden by trees and then to Council Avenue. Here we might very well stop again if we Ran Into Mrs Ditchburn who had a family connection with Ditchburn’s Newsagency and not only that, a famous relative called Ted as well. Ted was goalkeeper for Tottenham Hotspur and much revered by all the boys I knew and most of their fathers. My mother greatly approved of Mrs Ditchburn and so the chat would be an extended one so Little Margery and I could play pretend hopscotch on the paving stones and I would admire her shiny black shoes and wish I had some just the same.

We then had to pass a number of very boring places like the Gas Board Showrooms and the Food Office that had something to do with Cod Liver Oil and free Orange Juice, both of which I treated with great suspicion, before we got to the High Street proper which I always felt started at The Wardona Cinema and there my spirits lifted. In those days most cinemas showed two feature films plus a newsreel and sometimes a cartoon as well and the programme was changed at least twice a week. This meant The Wardona was a busy and exciting place but my mother disapproved of it and thought you might Catch Nits from the seats because it wasn’t very clean so if we went to the cinema at all it was always in Gravesend and usually to The Majestic. I preferred The Wardona, however, because all my classmates and neighbours went to the Saturday Morning Children’s Picture Show and once in a while, though not very often, I was allowed to join them. Oh the excitement of those Saturday mornings hemmed in on all sides by unruly screeching schoolchildren some with pre-schoolers in tow who, surprisingly despite the noise level often fell asleep. For sixpence you got a full three hours of entertainment and came out with a thumping headache and possibly sometimes with nits. Sadly, years later after the expense of a complete upgrade and a Grand Opening featuring stars from a famous TV soap opera, the Wardona closed its doors for good. The Grand Opening had been a highlight in my early teenage life because although we did not at the time own a TV set ourselves, everyone else did and I had actually seen two episodes of The Grove Family Saga at the Bennetts in Buckingham Road, sitting with Joan who was Spoilt-Rotten whilst our mothers spoke in low voices of matters we must not be privy to. So the grand re-opening coming at a time when I felt I was destined to be a famous actress meant that I made sure I was first in line to smile and chat to the young girl who cut the ribbon and made the speeches and who I desperately yearned to emulate and whose name I now completely forget. I even featured in the extreme left corner of the photo that appeared in The Gravesend & Dartford Reporter which was of course totally thrilling.

However, long before the demise of the Wardona I always experienced a frisson of something like excitement when passing this particular area of the High Street because adjacent in the Astoria Dance Hall was Marjorie Shades Dancing School where the especially fortunate girls in my class at school like Helen Gunner and Pearl Banfield went every Wednesday for Tap Dancing and sometimes on Saturday too for Ballet Classes at one and sixpence a time. My mother would not be persuaded about the dance classes even though my cousin Pat from Crayford had been learning Tap for more than two years and now danced better than Ginger Rogers. No matter how good a dancer I was sure I would become I knew we had better things to do with our money.

By the time we were deep into the High Street proper I had usually stopped complaining about being tired and the shops themselves became suddenly more interesting. Treadwells the Butcher and Knowles the Baker were sure to be visited followed by Pearsons the Grocer and even Frosts simply to look at radios and electric bar heaters. Frosts was an exciting place because posters on the wall advised that Pianos were For Hire or Available on Hire Purchase. In addition they had Radio Sets & Components of every description and any Overhauls were carried out by Expert Workmen. What could be better than that?

At times we bought a few mint humbugs from Barratts where the old man and his daughter had sold sweets and cigarettes for years and where nearly a decade later he was to refuse to sell me a box of matches because I did not buy cigarettes to go with them and I threatened to report him to the Police Station. He advised me to do my worst but the unhelpful sergeant at the desk told me he didn’t have to sell anything to anyone if he didn’t want to and that was the Law whether I liked it or not. I did not like it so some months after this unpleasant and to my mind most unfair interlude, disguised with sunglasses and a fake American accent, I ventured into Barratts again clutching twopence in my right hand glad to see the old man still there behind the counter. I asked him to weigh me up a quarter of a pound each of humbugs, toffees, sherbert lemons, liquorice allsorts and dolly mixtures which he did. I asked for half an ounce of Hearts of Oak and some Rizla cigarette papers together with twenty Players’ Weights and - oh yes, as an afterthought and so, so casual – a box of matches please. This impressive range of potential purchases was now lined up neatly on the counter before me, Old Barratt looking as Old Nan would say, As-Pleased-As-Bleeding-Punch. I picked up the matches, placed the two pennies on the counter and said I’d changed my mind and I’d just have the matches today thank you before sauntering out into the sunshine of the High Street once more, heart pounding. He followed me only to the doorway which I found surprising, gesticulating and blaspheming . Of course I was much too cowardly to ever risk venturing onto the premises again.

In 1949 a visit to Mrs. Bodycombe’s hardware shop was a must on a Friday for Reckitts Blue for the Monday wash then quite often we Dropped In on Little Nannie Constant in Hamerton Road to make sure she was all right and to drink a cup of tea. In winter it would be nearly dark when we ventured up Station Road again and past the Old Mission Hall where if we were lucky we might hear the Northfleet Silver Band in rehearsal and I could stand for a few minutes transfixed to hear Rossini Overtures and John Philip Sousa Marches, music that mesmerised me. Fifty years later the same melodies at a band concert in Auckland, New Zealand were to conjure up immediate memories of Northfleet on a cold and frosty early evening, the long gone buildings frozen somehow in time and memory.

The High Street back then wasn’t all shops by any means because a number of people actually lived there in brick houses facing the street including Bill Moody who had a Coach business and ran it from his front room and had Been-There- For-Donkey’s-Years. In the years following my father’s death we sometimes took day tours with Moodys’ to places like Brighton and Hastings, The Devil’s Punch Bowl and Whipsnade Zoo. Surprisingly at twelve and thirteen I would more than likely be allowed to choose the trip and the one I remember most clearly was The Devil’s Punch Bowl because of the endless Monica Edwards books I had read. Oh the excitement of driving by the very place where the mythical Thornton Family had their farm and rode their ponies and lived their fascinating lives! For a brief moment I imagined I could simply reach out and touch them.

Homeward bound from High Street shopping meant walking on the river side of the street, dropping into Hardy’s the Drapers and perhaps the huge and forbidding Post Office. Past the photographer where both my brother and I had our first baby photographs taken, each of us five months old, proudly sitting all by ourselves in smocked white silk baby frocks and looking astonishingly alike. The same photographer where I had yet another photo taken at the age of three or four to send to my father in North Africa. Wearing my best blue satin dress I stare at the camera, unsmiling from beneath a newly trimmed for the occasion fringe.

Datlen’s always put out their Frying-Now notice in the early evening and the smell of freshly fried haddock and chips was so tantalising it brought tears to the eyes. But we always bought our Fish & Chips from Shepherd Street though possibly Datlen’s wet fish might be scanned for suitability if it was a Friday. Very occasionally we might buy a pint of shrimps for tea from Edgeley’s the shellfish shop nearby where they were measured in a pewter mug and firmly wrapped in newspaper then put into the very bottom of the string bag that I might now be allowed to carry, bumping uncomfortably against my legs. Less exciting was the Cooked Meats shop operated by Mr Davies who was the cousin of one of our neighbours and so had to be briefly chatted to if he was reasonably idle. I liked the grocery store with the musty sawdust smell where a Mrs. Lambert who had Been-There-Since-the-Year-Dot sold sterilised milk from Mortlock Dairy in tall glass bottles with interesting red and black stoppers which we never bought because my mother maintained it wasn’t healthy and you might catch things. Aunt Mag told her she was wrong because it was Sterilised which meant it must be good and anyway she had used it herself for years with no ill effect. Mrs Lambert also sold salt in huge lumps that looked like ice which again we never bought because you didn’t know whose hands had been all over it.

Bareham’s the Barber was always busy and that’s where my father usually went for his short back and sides and where he took my brother for his very first grown up haircut just before he started school. Until then my mother trimmed his hair herself but in September 1951 he strode off to Bareham’s hand in hand with the father who was to die within months, like a Big-Boy, the two of them on a trip together Bernard would years later remember no details of no matter how hard he struggled to recall it. Once my mother booked in to the Ladies Department operated by Miss Joyce for a Toni Perm and I was allowed to wait while she had it and look at all the magazines and not make a nuisance of myself. I must have been at least nine or ten because I was certainly a good enough reader to be both shocked and not a little confused by the problem pages of the magazines of the day where writers asked the advice of Aunt Evelyn on such matters as How Much Intimacy To Allow My Fiancè Before Marriage and Why Do I Not Seem To Be Able To Conceive. I knew enough of the facts of life to understand that Conceiving had something to do with Falling-For-a-Baby and that was a topic that must not be discussed even though it could be seen as both a very good or a very bad thing depending upon the circumstances. I was definitely much more puzzled about what Intimacy might mean. As our household was not Made of Money we did not go in for magazines and so I rarely had the opportunity to familiarise myself with the contents. Later Toni Perms were done by my Aunt Martha who had set up a little home business at half a crown a time and you bring your own perm kit only she didn’t charge family. Aunt Martha did not provide magazines.

In those days Northfleet High Street was always a busy place with most of the businesses open until six o`clock – including Spooners the Florists, Rowes the Optician, Hinkley’s Shoes and Fred Waters Gentlemen’s Outfitters from London. Wherever possible, family members were employed by each enterprise with sons and daughters, nephews and nieces stepping behind counters after school and on Saturday mornings. Rayners Hardware, for instance eventually provided employment for the whole family, the three sons Ken, Arnold and Eric and their sister Gwennie and the occasional cousin as well.

Walking home would often be cold, the temperature having dropped at least six or seven degrees since we set out but as it darkened each building we passed took on a warm and welcoming look as lights were switched on and all the pubs began to open – The Edinburgh Castle, The Coopers’Arms, The Railway Tavern and The Marquis of Granby. Pete’s Café on The Hill looked especially cheerful because as we approached it I knew we had conquered most of the journey. I longed to go inside but we never did, even when we had one of the Aunts or Old Nan with us because it was a place where only men gathered, always with vans and lorries parked outside and Pete himself inside in a fair isle pullover making the endless cups of tea and cutting the sandwiches.

Understandably I would be quite worn out by the time we reached York Road, feet aching more than they should because often I was walking in shoes that didn’t quite fit. But whatever the adverse aspects of those long ago once weekly shopping trips they were full of incident, however trifling that would be totally absent for those retracing our steps in this totally modern and far more impersonal age.

Sunday, 16 April 2017

St Botolph's School & The Difficult Business of Friendships

Some people seem to be in the happy position of going through life making friends extremely easily and rising to the top in the popularity stakes of each group they become involved in. I’m definitely not one of them. I have had few really close friends over the years and fewer still when I was a child. Molly from No 31 York Road was something of an exception in that she remained my friend over a number of years and did not particularly criticise me or demand very much of me; perhaps she simply did not like me as much as I liked her but possibly a further clue lies in the fact that I never selected her as a suitable victim for my most manipulative schemes. My mother always maintained that my unpopularity lay in the fact that I was a very Quarrelsome Child. She spoke with a fair degree of accuracy although Quarrelsome was not a word I would have immediately chosen. However my general behaviour dictated that It was not completely unsurprising that I found it difficult to make and maintain close relationships as a child. Even at the time I knew there was a problem and half realised why but seemed unable to make the necessary changes for the better. I told myself that I didn’t really care – but of course I did.

It began whilst I was still a pre-schooler when Evalena the granddaughter of The Bassants Next Door would have become my friend very willingly had I only treated her a little better. But treating her well seemed unmanageable and whilst on the surface I appeared to be her friend, behind the scenes and out of the way of adult eyes I made her life as miserable as any four year old possibly could. I plagued her with taunts regarding her weight, jeered at the stories she told me about her mother swallowing open safety pins on a regular basis (that miraculously closed when they encountered mysteriously placed bones whilst navigating her digestive tract) and perhaps more spitefully, sent her on treasure hunts that forced her to purloin other people’s possessions. Even this thinly disguised theft might not have been so bad had Evalena been allowed to keep at least some of the plunder for herself but generally I required her to hand it over. One day she found a full sized cricket bat that had clearly been mistakenly left on The Old Green and she rushed with great excitement to tell me about it. We should play cricket together she told me, still glowing with the exhilaration of the find. Not wanting to admit that I had not a clue as to how cricket was played, however, I decided to spoil things for her by claiming loudly to her grandparents that in fact the bat had been found by me and Evalena had stolen it from me and I wanted it back. The grandparents looked doubtful but within minutes I was sobbing convincingly great victim sobs and so it was handed over. I’ve often wondered why I felt the need to do that as had no inclination to play sport and the bat was shoved under my bed and destined never to be used again.

I saved my most socially hostile schemes for my years at St Botolph’s School so that other, more amiable classmates, once they got the measure of me generally did their best not to get too close and in any activity where we had to Choose A Partner, I was invariably left unpartnered and for ever destined to work alongside whoever happened to be the other class misfit at the time. In Miss Biggs’class at the age of eight I found myself sitting next to another York Road resident, Peter Jackson, a fairly inoffensive boy as boys go who made it clear he would have much rather been placed beside another boy – any boy. For several weeks I made his life miserable by regularly writing the rudest words I knew in his exercise books in capital letters. By today’s standards the words were reasonably mundane and I remember SHIT, BUM, TITS and BUGGER but nothing more indecent than that. However Peter was outraged and when he importantly strode to the front of the room, exercise book in hand, to advise Miss Biggs of this ignominy I practised looking as guileless as possible and with a confused little shrug told her that I didn’t know why Peter said such things about me and I only wished he would stop writing rude words. I even contemplated asking her what TITS actually meant before deciding against the idea. She always believed me and invariably Peter would be told he had to stay in at playtime as a punishment – or given a hundred lines to remind himself that writing rude words was totally unacceptable. I finally stopped torturing him in this way when he was one day sent to Mr Cooke the new headmaster who caned him. Even I thought that was excessive and I found myself so strangely moved by his tears that I began to cry myself. Miss Biggs advised both of us to stop crying at once and reminded me that Peter had been a very naughty boy indeed – that I was the real victim and I should on no account feel sorry for him!

Back in the late nineteen forties Britain was just beginning to recover from the effects of the war, fathers mostly had regular jobs and even working class children like the majority of St Botolph’s pupils were given regular small amounts of pocket money. Although saving was encouraged by most adults the recipients of the money were much more keen to spend it on such delicacies as liquorice wood, sherbet dabs and locust beans from the newsagent and sweet shop next to Penney Son & Parkers on The Hill. To say I was envious of the recipients of these weekly sums is an understatement and I discussed it at some length with Molly who was another non receiver. Finally I hit upon the idea of collecting from what I saw as the more affluent homes in Springhead Road for a non-existent charity which I called the NSSSC (National Society for the Salvation of School Children). Molly declined to join me in this venture but eventually I persuaded a nicely behaved girl called Betty Haddon from Hartfield Place who said she was keen but only if the eventual collection really and truly benefited school children. I told her we were going to buy sherbet dabs and I would personally post them to children in Africa who needed saving. The scheme was not as successful as I had hoped and we were asked rather a lot of penetrating questions about how long we had been Registered but eventually we collected two shillings and nine pence which bought quite a number of sherbet dabs I seem to remember. I generously tried to give Betty one to take home with her but she said she didn’t want it and because I had never been totally wedded to the idea of posting such delightful goodies to Africa in the first place, I consumed the remainder myself over the next day or two. Sadly, when I approached Betty for a second round of collecting she firmly refused and at playtime went back to playing Skipping with Barbara Scutts and Rita Jenkins. Barbara said they had enough for their game and I was not allowed to join them. Feeling very wounded I told Barbara she had stinky knickers whereupon she said that my mother dressed me funny and I looked like a scarecrow. Because that might possibly be true given my mother’s poor dressmaking skills I ran away at that point and seethed in the Girls’Toilets planning payback. Walking home from school Molly said she had never thought Collecting was a very good idea in the first place.

A year or so later I briefly became friendly with Helen Gunner the local vicar’s daughter. I was in fact quite gratified to have been able to coerce her into friendship because she had an attractively posh voice and at that stage I was still trying to perfect my BBC accent and it was clear she was in a position to help being very nearly Posh herself. It was also clear that though they tried to push the rather un-Christian impression aside, her parents considered me to be a totally unsuitable friend for their daughter. Their gut feeling hardened when I encouraged her to play Noughts & Crosses for money and she ended up owing me nearly seven shillings. We had started off with very minor halfpenny stakes but after a while, to increase the excitement of the game I suggested we progress to Double Or Nothing and by that time I think I had also somehow or other rigged the outcome. The Reverend Gunner took us into his rather impressively book-lined study and gave us a gentle lecture on the evils of gambling during which I began to cry and told him that part of me knew it wasn’t right but I was saving up to buy my mother a brooch for her birthday. Helen began to cry as well at that stage and pointed out in a more than slightly moralistic and uptight manner that I had, after all, won the money fairly and squarely and it wasn’t really my fault that gambling was so unacceptable. She even ventured with some hesitation that it was possible no-one had ever explained that properly to me before. Her father began to falter and I saw him wavering, wanting to support his daughter’s sense of what was Fair, Moral, Just – more than a little bit proud of her. In fact exactly like a Father in a Story Book! I thought it must be reassuring to have parents like him although I could see the downside also – just imagine being constantly reminded about the rights and wrongs of your behaviour? At least bottom of the heap families like mine rarely went in for lectures on moral behaviour and most reprimands and punishment simply revolved around drawing attention to yourself by annoying an adult when it wasn’t strictly necessary to do so. Whilst I was meditating upon these differences between families, to my amazement Reverend Gunner handed over the seven shillings and said there would be no further debate on the matter. I did notice, however, that the following Monday at school Helen avoided me and had soon found a new Best Friend – Elizabeth. Feeling more than a little irked I asked her why and she justified the shift by telling me that Elizabeth went to the same tap dancing class as she did. How I envied those fortunate few who were allowed to attend dance classes and set off importantly each Wednesday after school clutching their tap shoes in shoe bags made by loving mothers.

By the time I was ten I had become more pragmatic about the difficult business of attracting friends. It was just possible I was a Late Developer as far as friends were concerned like my cousin Desmond who had caused a great deal of family gossip because he didn’t say a single word until he was three. Even Old Nan agreed that he was finally as Right As Rain and had simply been a Late Developer. Friendship might be something I would eventually Grow Into.

Thursday, 13 April 2017

Withstanding Ruinous Weather Events

I have to say that I, along with many others I know, am heartily sick of all the hysterical hype regarding Weather Events. For days we were warned that a Very Nasty Episode was heading our way in the form of Cyclone Cook. Maybe the name should have told us something – Cook? Not an altogether seemly name for a cylone is it? As parts of the country were still mopping up from the tail end of Cyclone Debbie and the greater part of the town of Edgecumbe was still under water this wasn’t terribly good news. The demeanour of Dan the TV weather man grew more animated as the days passed because THIS was going to be a once in a generation affair, the likes of which most of us had never seen and would be most unlikely to see again. Radio talk shows repeatedly referred to The Waihine Disaster of 1968 when an inter-island ferry went down within sight of the Wellington foreshore with the loss of many lives. THIS was going to be at least as bad, if not worse was the dark warning disseminated by the MetService and we were all advised to take it very seriously indeed. The Ministry of Education therefore advised a large number of schools and early learning centres to close. MetService warned that some areas could expect 250mm of rain in 48 hours and gusts of 150km/hour or more together with large waves in excess of five metres and storm surges. In Auckland the Harbour Bridge was likely to be closed, all ferries cancelled and the dangerous looking new fangled double decker buses would not operate. On Wednesday one meteorologist said that in her opinion the public was not taking the approaching storm seriously enough. The advice was now that Easter trips should be cancelled and we should all stay home unless it was absolutely necessary that we ventured out.

So you can see why Jennifer and I felt quite heroic in our decision to still maintain our second Thursday of the month coffee meeting downtown so close to that dangerous foreshore where we might be caught out by a tidal surge at any moment. But then we are both British and women like us are not easily intimidated by trivia such as cyclones. You could say there is more than a little of the Dunkirk Spirit in us. So, not to put too fine a point on it we met as usual outside the Old Post Office, now the New(ish) Station, carrying mini umbrellas as a precautionary measure and feeling like Warrior Queens – and that’s probably because we both spent our formative years in the general catchment area of the Iceni and learned a great deal about Boadicea at primary school.

As we nervously sipped cinnamon topped cappuccinos Jennifer did concede that she might give the cathedral choir a miss that evening and I agreed that she was wise not to tempt fate by venturing out twice in one day. Our coffee date was shorter than usual on account of fate tempting and possible ferry cancellation at a moment’s notice. I wisely decided not to walk back to Parnell via the waterfront, my usual preferred route, but took the Quay Street-Strand route instead past Scene One where Patrick and Alena live safely away from storm surges on the fifth floor. I stopped briefly at the supermarket on the way, fully intending to buy bread and olives but the place was so full of panic stricken customers feverishly stocking up on bottled water and radio batteries, I left immediately and was within another twelve minutes safely home again. The Husband was relieved to see me safely back and said that he had just heard that the University had closed early.

And so we waited – and waited – and waited some more and in the end Cyclone Cook gave Auckland a Big Miss. We experienced a moderate shower or two, no wind at all and this morning the sun shines as brightly as ever! Over breakfast coffee I complained bitterly about the forecasters. The Husband listened and simply observed that they never get it right when they predict a week of sunshine and high temperatures either. He’s right you know!

Saturday, 8 April 2017

Family Facts & Fantasies

When I recently posed the question on social media as to the wisdom of writing about Predators from the Past, family members whose behaviour towards unprotected young girls should have been curbed, the reactions were immediate, diverse, thought provoking. Many comments came privately, some via email as have a number of communications on family matters over the past year. Overall the feeling was that it is better by far to stay silent. Do not waken sleeping dogs. Predominantly Roman Catholic Families still seem to reflect the attitudes of their Church and prefer to continue to offer robust protection where certain matters of offending are concerned. And though not entirely surprising, in this day and age that is more than a little disappointing. But is it in the great scheme of things any more disheartening than the veil of secrecy that is traditionally drawn over a whole raft of other, infinitely less contentious Family Matters many would prefer to dismiss permanently into the nether regions of the Undiscussable?

It would be reassuring to be able to say that such attitudes are behind the times, outdated, even archaic and in these more enlightened times we of the twenty first century, so utterly up to date in outlook find them laughingly old fashioned. Except so many of us don’t. My grandmother and aunts were highly shamed by the presence of Queenie the Hermaphrodite in their ranks. She was only to be spoken of in whispers. Years later Old Nan would reluctantly admit that she had been `One of Them There Aphrodites’, causing rapid reference to the Myths of Ancient Greece followed by even more confusion. Similarly in the late nineteen forties my mother was deeply mortified to concede that my father was a serial adulterer and could only bring herself to openly acknowledge the fact when he had been dead for over thirty years. In her distress she sadly always overlooked his good points. He had also been a charismatic individual with a wide range of interests and many loyal friends. He read widely, learned Arias from Italian Opera simply for fun and wrote poetry, somewhat unusual interests for a working class man and maybe worthy of discussion. But he was as far as she was concerned simply designated a sexual philanderer and as she was never prepared to openly recognise the infidelity, his memory together with all that was worthy about him was forever consigned to a dark corner and he was only rarely spoken of.

Years later it was more understandable that she had an eagerness for my brother’s brief and unsuccessful career in crime in his teens to be overlooked. He was never going to pose a threat to the Krays or the Richardsons and in the execution of his lawbreaking left behind enough clues to give even Hercule Poirot a headache but our mother’s enthusiasm for denying that any of the incidents actually took place was disquieting. So unwavering was her determination to utterly ignore his offending I was barely allowed to know of it myself and was never able to ascertain if anyone else in the immediate family was actually aware of it because an iron curtain of silence descended that made discussion impossible. This was unfortunate because even at the time I was aware that the unhappy episodes had come about primarily because he was missing a father’s influence and it might have helped if it could have been openly spoken of. This was never to be the case, however, and I imagine that should I broach the subject even today I would be soundly castigated by a number of first and second cousins who feel they knew him well yet knew him not at all.

My father’s family was no better at accepting calamitous situations and my paternal grandmother’s forty year incarceration within a mental hospital for drunkenness and picking neighbourhood fights was a luckless tale that worsened with embroidery. Simply because the true facts of her confinement were never spoken of we grandchildren came to the conclusion that she was a murderess and told each other stories of the bodies that were later found under the house in Chatham. This eventually became playground gossip then street gossip that filtered back to the astonished adults so keen on protecting her reputation from slanderous comment in the first place.

When my first son was born in the late nineteen sixties my mother was appalled by my unmarried status and for the benefit of friends and neighbours married me off to an entirely imaginary architect. I was not able to work out whether my closest relatives were also privy to this tale because the familial rules surrounding concealment of truth dictated that the topic could never be raised. However, a few years later when I entered an Actual Marriage with a New Zealand doctor she was greatly discomfited and forced to kill of the architect and remarry me as swiftly as possible. The speed of the nuptials was purely because Medicine rated more highly than Architecture in the family scale of general achievement. To this day the demise of Husband Number One is never mentioned.

Matters concerning sexual attraction and long term attachments between men and women were customarily even more taboo and their discussion was generally prohibited at all times. Leaving a long term partner was so horrifying it was largely ignored for as long as possible and finally debated only tentatively and in a kid glove atmosphere. Surprisingly, even in the more enlightened nineteen eighties family consternation was rife when my brother decided to walk away from his first marriage. Bernard had been a husband and father at the tender age of eighteen and it seemed not altogether surprising that after twenty years he saw fit to move on from his first wife to his second. What might have been a moderately standard transition was sadly greatly complicated by the fact that two couples who had been friends since schooldays and who had acted as Best Men and Maids of Honour at each other’s weddings, now kept things simple by switching partners thus making their lives the stuff of BBC comedies. This fact so disturbed our nearest and dearest that the many Aunts simply decided that it wasn’t happening. It was just a vicious and unfounded rumour that could not possibly be spoken of even though the truth was clearly visible to most of those around us and the details of the partner switch so sensational and scandalous that it caused months of gossip in North Kent. It is easy to comprehend the reluctance to acknowledge the rapidly unfolding drama but unhappily such attitudes only aid and abet the layers of secrets and lies that for no very good reason thrive and flourish within families where Truth has little value. Aghast and amused bystanders are destined to be for ever confused by the end result of certain human behaviours and eventually are given to understand that just a few family members know the Whole Truth of what the reprobates are up to whilst others are aware of partial truths and a further much less informed group know little or nothing at all because for some reason they need to be Protected. And whilst Protecting the Young is completely logical, there is surely a case for querying why protection needs to continue for decades. Sadly, such mind sets become entrenched even though they serve merely to foster misgivings because in an environment of distrust it is challenging for any one of us to make sensible decisions as to what can be discussed and with whom. Possibly that was not entirely uncommon thirty years ago and we might be advised to simply analyse it alongside the underlying social bigotry that also existed at the time. But surely things have changed by now?

Yet have they? As far as relationship break ups are concerned, these carry with them such a raft of damaged emotions it is easy to see how it simply becomes easier not to examine a subject that is agonisingly painful. It’s a fact that in human affiliations one person will always be destined to suffer the greater anguish. The humiliation of being seen as no longer valued when a long term partner signals their intention to move on cannot be truly understood by those in more secure relationships. It therefore becomes ever more logical that Mythology is fostered whilst Truth withers and with time those who seek to question the Mythology are rapidly labelled Liars of the First Order.

So what of those other dark perpetrators of misery we started with? The predators from times past who heaped their inappropriate behaviours onto the young and unprotected? Does there ever come a time when their transgressions can be exposed and the torment they inflicted be examined? Or does it do no good to Bring It All Up? Should we instead begin to accept the new family parameters of Folklore rather than face what an unfortunate few once knew to be Facts? With the passage of the years it becomes ever more feasible that the transgressions of the wrongdoers are protected alongside more run of the mill misdeeds. Does it do any good to heap misery upon their descendants? The defence of Wrongdoing begins tentatively at first simply with the passing of time. Then time creeps up alongside accuracy soundlessly, surreptitiously and irrevocably stealing certainty. Its relentless passage can be traced in the shifting boundaries of honour and integrity. Time will always be the ultimate Victor.

Tuesday, 4 April 2017

The Houses of Robinia Avenue

In the 1940s and 50s we lesser mortals of York Road, Tooley Street, Buckingham Road and Shepherd Street certainly considered the three Avenues and one Grove that lay on the far side of Dover Road to be quite exclusive and the dwellings therein almost impossibly desirable. Those fortunate families giving Lime, Robinia or Plane Avenues, or Laburnam Grove as their home address were extended a certain amount of deference from the butcher, chemist and greengrocer - esteem that the rest of us were definitely unlikely ever to be the recipients of. I know for a fact that I was pushed around the hallowed Avenues as a baby in my high pram simply for the entertainment value. The high pram itself was something of a luxury and years later I was told it was bought On Tick from Arthur Barnes’ Rainbow Stores because not only did he go in for fair prices and a wide stock range but his after sales service was apparently second to none. Hire Purchase was in its infancy at The Rainbow and did not take off in its later more recognisable form until after the war, but certainly late in 1939 you could organise what was sometimes called A Lay By with certain stores and pay five shillings a week and once your chosen item had reached the halfway point towards complete payment you could take it home with you. It was because of some similar arrangement that I ended up with a rather more stylish pram than might otherwise have been my fate and hence, perhaps, the outings to the various local Groves and Avenues that befitted such a baby carriage.

My mother was most admiring of Robinia Avenue in particular where smart interwar residences stood side by side each proudly displaying its small front garden and just beyond, a door to the vestibule where raincoats and muddy Wellington boots could be left and the dog’s lead or harness could be stored if you actually kept a dog. But then the people of Robinia Avenue did seem to keep dogs and were particularly fond of Cocker Spaniels and Corgis. Pausing deferentially outside one of the wrought iron gates I was told, before I was one year old that instead of kitchens some of these homes had Kitchenettes that were a mere passageway fitted with cooker, worktop and sink; what progress! Some of the houses featured stained and coloured glass in the form of decorative leadlights, adding enormously to their overall appeal. Tiling was also greatly admired and being impervious to frost were used outdoors for forecourts and doorsteps and could also be seen via tantalising glimpses, sometimes even on the walls of the porches. Our wartime neighbour Old Mrs Bassant of 29 York Road said that the New Estates in a place called Welwyn Garden City were all like Laburnum Grove and The Avenues and that one day we might perhaps take a day trip together to see this phenomenon for ourselves.

I seemed destined to be pushed in the high pram for much longer than was usual and I must have been nearly two years old when I was told one morning shortly after a particularly active overnight period of incendiary bombing that we were in for a Real Treat because it was a day when we might actually see inside the vestibule of one of the Robinia Avenue homes! My high pram was to be exchanged for a push chair courtesy of an advertisement in the window of Ripleys the Greengrocers. I clearly recall my hair being neatly brushed for the occasion and tied with new hair ribbons and being put into white socks and my best shiny black shoes that were just a little too tight and made me protest volubly when required to walk in them. I clearly recall the journey back when the green lollipop I had been given to stop me screaming for the return of my high pram and the agony of the tight shoe problem, got stuck in the wheels of the alien push chair, new, modern and already much hated. Sadly I remember nothing of the house with the vestibule and whether or not we might have also got to see the narrow kitchenette but my mother waxed lyrical about the baby vehicle switch for months so it was certainly a very rewarding exchange of goods as far as she was concerned.
The general attraction of the desirable residences did not entirely diminish as I grew older and from time to time Molly from No 31 and I would choose the Avenues for our occasional contemplative walks during which we planned our futures including husbands, homes, careers and in my case even the names of my possible children and what they might wear on a daily basis.

It was years later before I realised that the much sought after area just around the corner from Dover Road had also had a significant effect upon my younger brother and most particularly so where his relationship with his future Father in Law was concerned. Bernard told me that he had immediately become inordinately fond of Reg, the father of his new fiancée Janice, and despite Bernard’s many failings, it seems evident that the feeling was mutual. Reg certainly went out of his way to be more than fatherly and helpful towards the teenager who was to shortly become his son-in-law and the father of his first grandchild. Considering the extreme youth of the young couple and my brother’s lack of Old Fashioned Prospects this attitude of paternalistic concern and affection is rather surprising. Any initial surprise concerning the relationship between Reg and his son-in-law-to-be could only turn to wonder and astonishment when the breadth of my brother’s deception and duplicity was finally untangled and revealed.

Janice herself maintained that she became aware quite early on in their relationship that the young man she loved was not always totally honest with her. Pragmatism prevented her from delving too deeply into his various web of fantasies, however. She did not believe for a moment that my poor mother, still living in York Road, Northfleet, and quite obviously in financial need, drove a Citroen which she parked in Dover Road. Neither did she believe that the Citroen enthusiast owned several properties in Spain. These claims seemed unlikely to Janice. Nor did she think it likely that Nellie was Bernard’s long lost and only recently rediscovered Real mother and that he had been adopted as a small child into a much more affluent but still local family. Furthermore it seemed dubious to her that he was nearly twenty one years old when other local lads who claimed to have been in his class at school were only just reaching their eighteenth birthdays. His declaration that he was a pop singer with a well known band also seemed improbable.

Janice was undeniably astute and perceptive but her all too trusting father, despite his years of undoubted success in the business of supplying paint and wallpaper to the citizens of both Islington and the Medway Towns, clearly was not. It later became evident that Reg had touching faith in the various fanciful tales told to him by his future son-in-law. Not only did he appear to uncritically accept the Pop Band story which explained Bernard’s lack of more mundane Work History, he did not for one moment query his age and even contacted me at the approach of an entirely imaginary twenty first birthday to ask if it would be in order for him to Put On A Bit Of A Do to celebrate the event. It’s very hard to know what to say under such circumstances and I think I said very little, hoping that the crisis would pass because by this time the young couple were already married and living quite comfortably above the shop in Camden Passage, at The Angel where my brother was now the youthful manager. Whatever conversation passed between us Reg did indeed Put On A Bit Of A Do where a hall was hired, we all dressed up for the occasion, bottles of something very like champagne were served along with smoked salmon savouries and Bernard celebrated his twenty first birthday at a time when he was only eighteen and a half years old.

There was undoubtedly despite everything, a bond of love and respect between Bernard and his father in law and over time, with a fair amount of fast talking , the complications in their early relationship emanating from the tidal wave of fantasy my brother created around himself, were resolved. Years later Bernard confided that the very worst teething problem of the relationship had been extricating himself from Robinia Avenue and the fiction that he lived there in a more than noticeably smart corner house complete with stained glass, tiles and a fortunately friendly Corgi.

During the months leading up to their wedding, he visited Janice and her family at Isted Rise several evenings each week and ever helpful Reg had become in the habit of dropping him home; but not to York Road where he was to later still maintain his Recently Rediscovered Citroen driving real mother lived in poverty. Heart in mouth he regularly and with an astonishing degree of confidence, entered the front gate of the house in Robinia Avenue where invariably the Corgi gave a welcoming bark, calling out a jovial `Thanks & Cheerio’ to Reg before stooping to greet the animal then secreting himself behind the hedge until the car had turned back towards Isted Rise. Then, whistling with relief he sauntered home to York Road leaving an ever confused and wistfully whining canine behind him!

In more ways than one and over a number of decades, as a family we were individually much involved with the Desirable Dwellings of Robinia Avenue.