Sunday, 30 July 2017

The Sad Passing Of Playing With Fire

I can barely remember my first Guy Fawkes Night but I have been told that it was in 1946 when a few rudimentary squibs and sparklers had once more become available. I stood with my father at the periphery of the blazing bonfire on the Old Green, tightly holding his hand and marveling at the way the flames licked into the darkness. Later he lit sparklers and balanced them on the back gate because I was much too fearful to hold them.

The War had been but an interruption to the established order of the rituals and traditions of the children of North Kent and by November 1946 the juvenile calendar was slowly and determinedly being restored to its natural rhythm. My Grandmother had the previous year unilaterally decided to resurrect A Pinch & A Punch For The First Of The Month and astonished me with what I saw as an unprovoked act of aggression on the first of June that year, the day before my birthday. I was somewhat mollified to find that I had license to respond with A Pinch & A Kick For Being So Quick! I imagine that today’s five year olds might be totally bewildered by this rather odd monthly practice.

Over the decades similar harmless customs seem to have been abandoned in favour of television, tablets and mobile telephones and this was certainly so by 1950 when most of England no longer indulged in Well Dressing and Whit Walks. Not everyone was content at the departure of familiar community customs. My mother and aunts spoke fondly of a time when Empire Day really mattered and all children were given flags and sang Land of Hope and Glory. Old Nan maintained that the streets of East London were decorated with bunting and stories were told about those who had displayed courage like Clive of India. By the time I was attending school the day was but a shadow of its former self with not a flag in sight.

On the other hand, as I grew older, Valentine’s Day still created a flurry of interest even in the very young. We were all anxious to receive a card from an anonymous admirer and at times were even forced to invent one. This was not a problem for me as I invented a great many scenarios in which I had a starring role but those who lived in families with a stricter regard for Truth might have struggled.
Back then mothers seemed generally adept at producing pancakes and no child I knew of would willingly have relinquished Shrove Tuesday, a festival that appeared to be unquestionably deep-rooted, yet has largely vanished without trace. Coming home after school to pancakes doused with sugar and lemon juice was a treat to be looked forward to for days in advance.

Ash Wednesday on the other hand, could be more readily discarded especially by those from non-religious households. April Fool’s Day was another matter altogether. The tricks, some more elaborate and amusing than others, could be planned weeks in advance particularly by boys. Chocolate Eggs to celebrate Eastertide were easily re-established after the war and became mandatory as they still are. There were times, disappointingly, when they were replaced with more mundane coloured eggs when chocolate proved too expensive. The rather more tedious Maypole dancing to celebrate May Day was disappearing by the time I was a teenager and I don’t remember too many tears at its demise although I now feel a twinge of sadness at its loss in the same way as I half-heartedly mourn the passing of Morris Dancers .

As far as Halloween is concerned, these days growing in popularity, we seemed to live in a country where this was celebrated by roughly half of the child population and ignored by the rest. In North Kent we knew it as All Saints Night but it was mostly disregarded because we were already concentrating on the imminent and much more exciting Guy Fawkes celebrations. These were centred on almost every spare piece of waste ground so the bomb sites that proliferated in and around Northfleet were ideal venues. There was always a bonfire on The Old Green, and another one in Buckingham Road. The Old Green fire was controlled by the Ribbins and Bardoe boys ably assisted by most of the local girls. Our Guy making was for several years dominated by Colin Bardoe, who had a twin called Alan and an older brother called Kenny, all boys with a certain amount of organizational skill. Colin was a resourceful and imaginative boy who aspired to hairdressing or choreography and longed to own a pony. He demonstrated a preference for the company of girls at a very young age and by the time we were nine several of us were already in love with him.

He structured the procedures involved for the celebration of Guy Fawkes with military precision. Old clothes were purloined from wherever we could find them and we sat as an admiring audience as he turned them into an Edwardian Gentleman with a little help from Molly Freeman and Pat Turner. For the ten days or so before the Fifth of November we toured the streets with the Guy in an old pram, accosting passers- by and knocking on doors in order to collect as much money as possible. At the same time as begging for A Penny For The Guy and hoping for sixpence we chanted lustily Guy, Guy, Stick Him In The Eye, Chuck Him On The Bonfire & There Let Him Die. I suppose these days you might describe this particularly persistent endeavour as Begging In The Streets and it would undoubtedly cause concern on Radio Talk Programmes and even local Councilors might be driven to comment.

The money collected and it was at times a reasonable sum certainly enough to make my mother purse her lips and Tut Tut, would then be spent on fireworks for the great day. Squibs, Bangers and Rockets, Roman Candles and Catherine Wheels the bigger the better. The fireworks themselves were usually chosen by a small committee headed by Alan and Colin and kept in their shed once they promised, Crossing Their Hearts and Hoping To Die, that they would not let a single one off in advance of the Fifth. But they did, of course, in order to Test Them. Those early winter evenings leading up to the Fifth were regularly punctuated with explosions and unlike today the Neighbours Never Complained though my mother, egged on by my Grandmother always pointed out that Them Bardoe Boys Couldn’t Be Trusted.

By the afternoon of the Fifth the excitement reached fever pitch as we all waited breathlessly for it to get dark enough for the ritual to start. And always we began far too early of course, with sparklers to entertain the very youngest, those who could barely walk and babies in push chairs. By eight o’clock the streets would be aflame with Catherine Wheels and Roman Candles and the sky fiery with rockets. For days the bonfire itself would have been growing ever more vast as families ransacked their cupboards and outhouses for anything combustible to add to it. At long last the Guy himself was hoisted to the top of the pyramid with the help of some of the fathers, the fire doused with paraffin and by nine the resulting blaze would send us into a frenzy. Colin would be leading the chant of Remember, Remember the Fifth of November, Gunpowder, Treason and Plot….. whilst Alan and Kenny fought over the last of the rockets.

On one memorable occasion an observing teenage son of a particularly hard wing Protestant family shocked my father by trying to teach us a jingle that began: A Penny Loaf to Feed the Pope, A Faggot of Sticks to Burn Him…. and was chased back into the depths of Springhead Road before he could further corrupt the Good Catholics amongst us.

In these more modern times of tame and bland Council Firework Displays It’s hard to convey the excitement of a Guy Fawkes celebration that has been essentially devised and choreographed by children themselves. Even when the last rocket had been launched and the initial ferocity of the fire had died down the excitement was not over. It was then that quantities of potatoes were thrown into the embers and Little Kathleen’s mother from the row of Cottages opposite The Old Green, usually grimly unapproachable and somehow worn down by the care of her one child plus what were rumoured to be Unnatural Marital Demands, always made enough toffee apples for everyone!

During those years there were strangely few warnings from our parents about the dangers of playing with explosives and local shops were more than happy to sell what are now seen as highly hazardous products to their youngest customers. The annual gala event was passively accepted even though the occasional child did meet with more than a trivial accident. Burns were considered routine as long as they did not require specialised medical treatment. On one occasion Sandra Ribbins was taken to go to the doctor on the sixth with a nasty burn to her hand and, even more alarming, Joan Bennet claimed that her cousin Muriel had a neighbour who almost lost the sight of one eye when a Catherine Wheel chose to spin off the garden gate. This may or may not have been completely accurate as Joan was prone to exaggeration and in any case such incidents though sobering were viewed pragmatically and seen as almost certain to happen from time to time when children and explosives coincide.

It could simply be that back in the 1940s and 1950s we were of necessity a more street-wise and aware group although I always saw myself as fearful and not one willing to take unnecessary risks. Certainly putting ourselves into the kind of situations that are heavily legislated against today, resulted in very few mishaps and we would have greeted the idea of a fireworks ban with uncomprehending astonishment. Health & Safety Requirements as we now know them were still just a seed of awareness in the ghostly intellect of grey shadow people yet to be born.

Wednesday, 26 July 2017

Black Hands & Smoky Tea

I’d quite forgotten the power of that oh so distinctive aroma of hops until Sylvia Hayward reminded me in yesterday’s comment. The smell is so characteristic, so unique that just one whiff will hurl the recipient directly into bygone Septembers in the Kentish countryside. How efficiently the sense of smell works on our most basic emotions to trigger memories from long ago. And the lost aroma of hops is particularly vibrant, bringing me always back to a pause in effort and exertion in those late summer afternoons when my Grandmother and Aunts clasped mugs of smoky tea produced by my mother with hands black from harvesting.

George Orwell on one of his Life Among The Poor projects in the 1930s maintained that Hop Picking was far from being a holiday and as far as remuneration was concerned, no worse employment existed in his opinion. He complained bitterly about his stained hands, his cracked fingers and made no comment concerning the idiosyncratic smell that is capable of bringing tears to the eyes of the rest of us. For we Ex-Hoppers, Going Hopping will remain always an experience so idyllic we struggle to find words adequate for the memories.

As for that aroma - one of my sons suggested new mown grass might be comparable – my neighbor felt the skin of a newly bathed baby was close to bliss. Neither of them, however, have ever Been Hopping!

Tuesday, 25 July 2017

Those Long Gone Days of Going Hopping........

As a family The Constants in all their diversity could definitely be described as enthusiastic if intermittent agricultural workers. This was primarily due to the influence of my maternal grandmother who was never happier than when she was harvesting the earth’s bounty. Digging for potatoes had an agreeable effect upon her general demeanour and the sight of orderly rows of peas and beans seemed to somehow bring out the best in her. This affection for the freedoms involved in part time Field Work had certainly been passed down to my mother and a number of her sisters so that they would as one descend upon the pea fields of North Kent with enthusiasm as soon as the season began. They signed up for Piecework with a strange mixture of gratitude and belligerence that was the hallmark of those who clearly saw themselves as the Independent Contractors of the Lower Orders of their day.

It has to be said that the family members were exceptionally reliable seasonal workers, applying themselves diligently throughout weather that was at times hardly indicative of Summer and at the same time largely enjoying the solid, earthy labour they turned their attention to. Old Nan maintained that you couldn’t beat a good stable week or two with the Pea Bines even though all the the bending played Merry Hell with her rheumatism. Ten days of Soft Fruits also earned her seal of approval and she was even capable of waxing lyrical over a yield of onions. However, all fruits and vegetables paled into insignificance when put alongside the annual even of Going Hopping and it mattered little that the hops themselves were not traditionally consumed until they had been turned into beer. My Grandmother could become passionate indeed about hops, so much so that each year in early May she would insist that we make a trip to the nearest Gardens to inspect the development of the young green shoots. She at the same time appropriated a reasonable quantity of them whilst we were there. This entire undertaking was carried out surreptitiously, arriving just before dusk when the farm workers were unlikely to be around and calling into The Plough on the way home for a celebratory glass or two of Pale Ale whilst we children ran riot outside and consumed packets of Smith’s Crisps. The young hops themselves would be soaked overnight in salt water and next day drained and simmered until tender to be eaten, tentatively in my case, with salt, pepper and a lump of butter. They tasted just a little bit like asparagus which of course none of us had ever sampled so we were not aware of the culinary connection at the time.

You could say that Old Nan never took her eye off the ball for a moment as far as hops were concerned. During the stringing season we would take a train trip or sometimes several buses, to Mereworth to Our Farm to observe the strangest of rural crafts for an afternoon’s entertainment. Armed with a picnic of bread and cheese and cold tea, we sat on the edge of the gardens to watch the stilt walkers traverse the narrow alleys of hops deftly stringing the plants overhead. Impressive as circus performers they made their measured progress along the poles, exhibiting the outlandish and bizarre dexterity needed to train the next stage of growth. In mid August the excitement mounted because now the hops were very nearly ready for picking and as many members of the family not otherwise engaged on more urgent business would be ready and willing to pick them. There were usually about twenty of us. My grandmother together with Motherless Little Violet, Aunt Martha with Pat, Aunt Maud with June and Desmond, Aunt Mag and Uncle Harold with young Harold, Leslie, Margaret and Ann, Freda with baby Susan, Uncle Edgar and wife with daughter Daphne, and of course my mother, brother and me – all of us could be found emerging from the pickers’ train at Maidstone station poised for six weeks of high adventure.

We went to the same farm each year at West Malling near Mereworth and lived in pickers’ huts, our family taking a third of those available so that it was almost like a tribal village. Later I was to learn that it was through the efforts of such bodies as the Society for Conveyance and Improved Lodging of Pickers that specially built huts had been constructed before the first world war. They were all the same and gave each family about 16 square feet to live in. Sacks and straw were available to make the bunks, constructed one above the other, more comfortable. At the end of each row of huts was a `cookhouse’ where huge fires were lit and the cooking done. The only toilet facilities were improvised long drops behind the huts where the queues were often so long that we children simply abandoned them and used the nearest bush. The farm with the best facilities was always said to be Whitbreads at Beltring where there was hot and cold water for showers, proper lavatories and even a twice weekly doctor’s surgery. However we were disinclined to go there because you had to Behave Properly and drunkenness and even swearing were misdemeanours and reported to the manager who recorded the transgressions in a black book. Three offences and you were expelled. This would clearly not have suited Old Nan one little bit.

I no longer remember the name of Our Farm but the memories surrounding the six weeks of rural freedom are still astonishingly vivid. In the 1940s a family of two adults and two children could earn between three and four pounds a week which meant a grand total of perhaps twenty or thirty pounds by the end of the season which was enough to make a great deal of difference to families such as ours. One of the conditions of employment was that the hoppers must remain for the full term of the harvest and to ensure this half the earnings were retained and paid as a lump sum at the end of September. Sometimes only tokens were distributed during the period of picking and these could be spent in the local village, both to purchase supplies from the shop and also, most particularly, supplies at the pub. The nearest pub was visited regularly by the adults on Friday and Saturday nights and by my uncles and my grandmother most nights. Sometimes we children would be sent off to purchase bottles of beer from the off license and these were consumed in the cookhouse after dinner by those who remained behind. Beer or no beer, sitting in the cookhouse watching the firelight dance and flicker after the meal was eaten is not easily forgotten. Nobody minded how long the children stayed up, and even when we did drift off to bed, we could hear the comforting refrains of Nellie Dean, My Old Dutch and Waiting At The Church, long into the night.

But it was up promptly at five the next morning when the day’s work began and being a child certainly did not automatically exclude you from the hard work; we were all expected to stand at the bins and pick despite the soporific effect of the plants. However, my mother and aunts were generally agreeable to letting us finish our contribution at noon each day when the only child still required to continue working, was Motherless Little Violet who, most unfortunately for her, was being brought up by Old Nan. My Grandmother was an exacting caregiver and consequently poor Little Violet despite her tender years sometimes picked all day and fell asleep exhausted at six pm each evening. But the afternoons were playtime for the rest of us and we roamed the local villages and woodland in a shabby, disparate group, gathering cobnuts and berries and daily becoming less and less popular with the villagers. The older boys were adept at purloining hop tokens from the adults and these we could exchange for treats at the village store. Even once the war was officially over the return of treats such as ice cream and sweets was slow but strange items were on sale specifically to attract the young – Liquorice Wood for example, and Locust Beans and other delicacies that would no doubt cause most of us to shudder these days. I distinctly recall that the Locust Beans were full of little maggots but I knocked them back with abandon despite that.

As the season progressed, more and more signs would appear outside pubs and businesses – No Hoppers, No Gypsies, at which time my cousin Margaret would be sent in to make the treat purchases because she was the oldest girl, had a nice smile and spoke politely. She also, somehow or other always managed to look cleaner and tidier than the rest of us. One year Margaret had acquired a pair of jodhpurs from the daughter of one of Uncle Harold’s mates who worked at the Crayford dog track, and she wore them daily over the picking period, ensuring a gracious reception at the village store. Somehow or other she managed to ignore the jeering of a group of teenage boys from the East End enquiring as to the location of her horse. I was filled with admiration for her composure.

Each year without fail, the story of my mother’s unconventional entry into the world as a somewhat premature infant, was retold by my grandmother, and we all became familiar with the details. That she had Come Early and was such a tiny little thing, no bigger than a milk jug, that she had been Born in a Caul that had been sold to a sailor a day or two later, for luck because as everybody knew, the owner of a Caul would never die by drowning. And that the trauma of the sudden birth Put Paid to Picking for the rest of the day though the new mother was Fit As a Fiddle again the next.

And at this stage my Grandmother, not generally known for her sentiment, could actually be seen to have a tear or two in her eye. There could be no doubting that she was never happier than in the hop gardens with her family all around her, telling tales of yesteryear as she deftly nipped the buds from garlands of bine into the bin. We, a larger group by far than those around us, always managed to pick more than other families moving rapidly enough along the drifts, or alleyways of plants, day after day to make the tally men wary and other pickers resentful. But hostility never worried Nan because she said Bugger The Lot of Them and it was just Bleedin’ Jealousy that was their problem.

Invariably as the weeks progressed there would be growing discord amongst the Kentish groups and the large East-End families, especially once they were joined at the weekends by husbands and brothers. Once or twice fights broke out and on one scandalous occasion Old Nan ripped the hooped ear ring out of a woman’s ear, tearing the ear lobe so badly that she had to be treated at the Hoppers’ Hospital at Five Oak Green. The matter was also reported to the Police and the following morning a Constable searched us out in the Gardens and took a statement and gave a Warning about being Charged. The whispering and rumour that swept through the pickers on this occasion was astonishing and managed to subdue my Grandmother for several days.

It was in the hop gardens at Mereworth that I first began to recognise that there was something distinctly different about our family. As I grew older and more street wise this knowledge established itself firmly into what was clearly evident. We were not just Working Class Poor; we were certainly not part of the Respectable Working Class Poor. We were not respectable or reputable in any way. Not a single one of us was highly regarded or well thought of. We were the very opposite of Decent, Good and Upright. As a bunch we were undoubtedly untrustworthy, unreliable and devious. When we cheerfully appeared, Mob-Handed into any situation it was not long before mutterings of Riff Raff and even Diddicais tripped from the tongues of the more traditionally Decent Poor.

Despite our undoubted position at the very Bottom of the Heap, over those post war years we picked with both fervour and fortitude . The six week season also served as a time of familial bonding when we cousins, at each other’s throats for the rest of the year, mostly rubbed along together with an unusual degree of tolerance. The only young Constants conspicuous by their absence from these annual events were Tommy, Sandra and Paul, who belonged to Aunt Rose and were never allowed to join us. This was because Aunt Rose had the misfortune to be married to Uncle Mervyn who was Welsh and a serving officer in the Air Force and this caused him to be Up His Own Arse. Even Aunt Mag agreed that he was a Snotty Nosed Git and my grandmother maintained he was raising his children to be Little Tight Arses. They were to be pitied having a father who denied them a free six week break in the country every year but then Mervyn, on top of believing himself to be better than the next man, was tight fisted - so mean he wouldn’t Give His Shit To The Crows.

We went into collective mourning in the early 1950s when the ritual Country Holiday became a thing of the past as the majority of farms quite suddenly became totally mechanised. I was about thirteen or fourteen years old when we completed our final picking season. But for several years afterwards my Grandmother and aunts would regularly take trips into the local countryside, vainly visiting farms to make hopeful enquiries as to whether pickers were needed. The culture and language of Going Hopping then sank almost without trace. And terms such as Bagsters, Bines, Bookers, Drifts, Footshoe Money, Hop Dogs, Hop Tokens, Pokes, Stringers and Tally Sticks, disappeared from the vocabulary completely and in fact only in more recent years have been resurrected in the form of information in Museums for the instruction and edification of schoolchildren on day trips. The Oast Houses are still there and have now been turned into cottages for those with sufficient financial resources to afford them. Their presence is oddly comforting because when I drove the Kentish lanes a year ago they seemed to be all that remained of the Going Hopping Tradition.

Thursday, 13 July 2017

A Decent Friendship at Wombwell Hall

I was never very good at making friends as I have made previous comment upon. It can be quite demoralising to invariably be standing at the outer edge of cohesive playground groups, at best tolerated but never accepted. That’s not to say that I was entirely friendless because that simply wasn’t true but generally those who were comfortable with me were not entirely accepted themselves. This fact was not overlooked by my mother who many years later told me that it was because I had been a Quarrelsome Child.

In my last year at St Botolph’s Primary School I became half friendly with Pearl Banfield, who lived at the top of York Road and whose mother was particular regarding those with whom her children associated. It was clear she was anxious about me and that was possibly because of Aunt Freda and the black market stockings that were never delivered in 1943. She became even more exacting after I wrote the poison pen letter when Pearl passed the eleven plus and I didn’t. Unsurprisingly that really put the cat among the pigeons and naturally enough Pearl was to have nothing further to do with me.

I wasn’t too upset by this because I had taken the precaution of becoming half friendly with Margaret Snelling who lived close to Northfleet Station and who let me have rides on her new bike and even invited me to her eleventh birthday party. Our family did not go in for celebrating birthdays and I was not familiar with the protocols. I rather blotted my copy book by not quite realising that guests were expected to be bearers of gifts and it was humiliating to overhear Margaret’s grandmother ask her mother who the strange little girl was who’d come without one. Luckily, Margaret, busy unwrapping jelly babies, hair slides and coloured pencils, didn’t appear to notice this exchange. Our friendship declined anyway when we transferred to the local secondary modern school and found ourselves in different Streams. I had been placed, somewhat surprisingly considering my abject 11 plus failure, in the A Stream. Margaret was a B Stream Girl even though she was much better than me in all aspects of Arithmetic even long division. I thought a mistake had been made and in the first week or two worried a great deal about Arithmetic and how soon it would be before it was discovered that I had not grasped the basics in this subject. I might even have approached the Headmistress, one Miss Dennis, if only she had not chosen to have her office beyond reach in the Senior School which was situated rather inconveniently at least half a mile away.

Miss Dennis had silver hair and pale blue eyes and wore pale blue twin sets and sensible shoes. She held an assembly in the Junior School once a week and talked about Being Happy at Work and Play and Striving to Do One’s Best At All Times. Her Tuesday morning homilies were exceedingly dull and a bit like listening to Father O`Connor’s Sunday sermons.

Molly from number 31, who was in the year ahead of me had been highly excited when she first went to Northfleet Girls’ Secondary Modern and said it was exactly like being at boarding school except you didn’t of course sleep there. You were allocated Houses, she told me and she was a Dame Laura Knight girl and for certain events like Games for instance, you wore a coloured sash that indicated which House you represented. Dame Laura sashes were blue. There were Prefects who stood in the corridors and penalised students for not walking properly or being too talkative and she was very much hoping to become one. I found myself in Helen Keller House and wore a yellow sash and knew for sure I was not destined to ever become a Prefect.

The two years at Northfleet Girls’ were remarkably uneventful. The only spike of interest was when Mrs Rowntree the History teacher proposed that we each make a reproduction of the Bayeaux Tapestry. However, it turned out to be merely a suggestion and I was the only one who acted upon it which caused a great deal of merriment among the group of twelve year olds who were at that time my loose associates. Shirley Monroe even asked me if I was trying to become a Teacher’s Pet which I vehemently denied. Even the English classes were tedious and I must have somehow coped with Arithmetic, probably by trying hard not to draw attention to myself.

I don’t recall how it happened but somehow or other I was selected for a possible place at Wombwell Hall. I say possible because my entry depended upon an interview with the Headmistress, Miss Fuller. The idea of Wombwell Hall was infinitely more exciting than anything that had gone before and from the moment I first stepped inside the old house it wrapped itself around me and I fell deeply in love with the place. To me the school, humble technical college though it was, had a solid reality about it and seemed to be a Real Place of Learning with staff that were decidedly more dedicated than I was accustomed to and one or two of them ultimately proving to be quite inspirational.

My mother was also impressed and told me that if I Played My Cards Right I might find it was the kind of place where Really Decent Friends could be made, not Fly by Nighters like Pearl for example. I was wholeheartedly in favour of Decent Friends and vowed to become a much friendlier person, accommodating and co-operative in order to attract the exceptional human beings who would undoubtedly change my life for the better.

I met Yvonne from Swanscombe on Day One, a tidy and confident girl wearing a hand knitted dark green cardigan almost a mirror image of my own, rather than the costly regulation version from the Uniform Shop in Gravesend. She also sported a well worn brown leather satchel rather too large for someone of her small stature. We stood side by side at the first Assembly and she told me that she was delighted to be given what she called This Important Chance because her father had died a year or two before and he had really cared about her education. She was keen to become a copy typist. I could have hugged her because suddenly, here before me was another Fatherless Girl, and very likely a Really Decent one. I decided there was already an important link between us and with a modicum of luck in no time at all we could be Best Friends. At last My Cards had been Played Right!
We sat together throughout that day and in fact for the whole of the first week. Yvonne even shared her morning break ginger biscuits with me and told me the details of the workplace accident that had taken the life of her father and how her mother was now really struggling to ensure that she and her younger sister, Doreen, were raised Properly. In fact Yvonne said things that made me positively glow with a quiet serenity even though there were aspects of her personality that were just a tiny bit tedious. It was this little corner of tiresomeness that led to me being almost relieved when a third girl was instructed to join us in the Friday Science Experiment. Valerie Goldsack who had golden hair to match her golden name sat between us and had a lot to say for herself because her father was a Detective Inspector in the local Police Force.

At the conclusion of the science class to our delight we found that our little trio had won the Prize of The Day for our work which was primarily because Valerie had already completed the experiment at her previous school. Nevertheless we were gratified by our success and unlikely though it was I even began to wonder if I might have an aptitude for science as I did not seem to have an aptitude for anything else. The prize was a small bar of Frys’ Mint Chocolate each. As we got ready to go home I made rapid work of demolishing the unexpected sweet treat. Yvonne ate half of hers and said she would save the rest for her sister. Valerie, looking disapprovingly at me as I discarded the blue and silver wrapping in the waste paper basket, said she was saving all of hers for Daddy because Daddy really liked Frys’ Mint Chocolate. Apparently it was his favourite.

I was unsettled on Monday morning when Yvonne suggested we invite golden haired Valerie to join us at morning break. By Wednesday I became further perturbed when Valerie produced her mother’s fairy cakes to supplement the ginger biscuits. To my later humiliation I even protested, tearful and infantile and causing the now hated Golden One much amusement. By Friday they were sitting together in class, sharing secrets and laughing at each other’s jokes. Oh how rapidly I had been relegated to the extreme outer rim of what was to have been my first Decent Friendship. Subsequently it also transpired that I had been quite wrong about having an aptitude for science.

Saturday, 8 July 2017

Among Our Souvenirs

Strange to reflect upon the knick-knacks we collect over the years, things that remind us of happy times, significant moments we are reluctant to relinquish.

I seemed to grow up surrounded by such souvenirs, little mementos of noteworthy instances in life that presumably served to lend my mother a glimpse back to times past. The most precious of these lived on the mantelpiece above the kitchen stove that she considered to be a Victorian eyesore and couldn’t wait to replace with what was called a Tiled Surround and was Modern. But I loved the stove, black and solid in its chimney alcove and I never entirely adjusted to its insipidly pink and pale replacement.
The kitchen mantle was the place for the reassuring paraphernalia of daily life, the trappings of a working class presence firmly placed in the middle of the twentieth century. Items evoking less poignant memories of days gone by were firmly positioned on the Front Room mantelpiece, that room accessed immediately from the street and hurried through by all in their haste to reach the warmth and security of the kitchen. It was only in later years I paused to consider it odd that her wedding photographs were consigned there.

The little china ornament importantly announcing that it was A Present From Margate sat always in the kitchen warmth, it’s base of reproduction sea shells losing colour over the decades but regularly prompting the story of the summer day of its purchase. It was a day she would always find difficult to forget because it had definitely been her sister Mag’s idea to lend her the old blue shoes in the first place on account of the smart new ones she had just bought in the market and Mag was determined to wear those new ones come hell or high water to impress her new husband. Well they must have been newly-weds, Mag and Harold, as there were definitely no babies as yet to be cared for while they all, the four of them, skedaddled to the coast for the day on the early train and their little Harold had come ever so quickly after the wedding. Very premature little soul he’d been. The Four of them had been Mag and her Harold together with his brother Les and of course Nellie. Even before the lunchtime pint and cheese sandwich at that pub along the Front in Marine Gardens, she thought it was called The Elephant, Mag was Creating Something Awful and saying that her feet Was Killing Her. Demanded her old blue shoes back and wanted Nellie to wear the new ones if you don’t mind! Would you credit it? But that was Mag all over. There’d been a right set to outside the pub with Mag saying well who did the old blue shoes belong to in the first place? And her Harold joined in too, well he would wouldn’t he? The long and the short of it had been that Nellie was forced to give the shoes up and walk around for the rest of the day in Mag’s new ones that really crippled her. So it hadn’t been much of an outing except she’d won a box of chocolates at Dreamland and on their way back to the station she’d bought the little china ornament – A Present From Margate. Les had wanted to buy it for her but she didn’t think he was much cop, not after her Poor Fred, so she bought it herself which really gave him The Pip.

The grey and white porcelain kitten playing with the ball of wool was another seaside purchase and had come from Southend in the summer of 1939 just before she had, with a certain degree of reluctance, married my father at the Catholic Church in Crayford. Off they had gone on his motor bike to sample the delights of a day by the sea. It was he who had bought it on this occasion along with a manicure set. He had laughed, shuffled his feet a bit in the motor cycle boots and talked about Plighting His Troth. She hadn’t entirely understood the term but had a good grasp of what he meant by it. Well she wasn’t completely daft after all was she? Later Mag and Old Nan had nearly piddled themselves laughing at the manicure set because she hadn’t got no nails of course; bitten to the bone they were and had been ever since Poor Fred Went. By rights it was Poor Fred she should have married of course and they’d been properly engaged for several years before the TB took him but then he would not have wanted to see her On The Shelf would he? She had loved him dearly. Once or twice she showed me the special card he had given her on the occasion of her twenty fifth birthday, ivory satin with red and gold lettering. It was wrapped in tissue paper. Inside he had written To My Sweetheart From Fred.

So it hadn’t been easy to marry Bernard Joseph Hendy and in the days before the wedding she had discussed the momentous decision more than once with Mag, and sometimes also with Maud and Martha because after all that’s what sisters were for and blood’s thicker than water. In terms reminiscent of the young Diana Spencer in a time that was yet to come she reminded herself and her siblings that he was a Good Man and didn’t drink nor use bad language. Her sisters anxiously observed their bridesmaids’ dresses and enthusiastically agreed and so of course did her mother, reminding her that The Bleeding Church was Booked and calling her a Silly Mare Who Didn’t Know Her Arse From Her Elbow. And so in August of that year the wedding duly took place and although the photographs of the event were to live always in the chill of the Front Room, the porcelain kitten played happily with his ball of wool on the kitchen mantelpiece from that day forward. She couldn’t for the life of her remember what had happened to the manicure set.

The cobalt blue vases and little jug decorated with enameled flowers had been given to them as a wedding present from Great Aunt Martha who lived near the station in Northfleet and always appeared to me to be very, very old indeed. My mother admitted once or twice that at the time she was given them she couldn’t honestly admit to being as Keen as Mustard but Great Aunt Martha had said they were antique and known as Bristol Glass and hard to come by. Nellie was not altogether taken with antiques but my father had investigated the history of Bristol Glass which by the time they received them was an art that had almost died out and it was his belief that they should be treasured as one day they might well be Worth Something. And as Great Aunt Martha was a frequent visitor they were kept always in pride of place in the kitchen and over the years my brother and I became fond of them and most reluctant for them to be sold when this was suggested by Old Nan after the death of our father at a time when we were particularly short of the readys.

The kitchen at York Road was where we routinely made our rag rugs each winter to replace those so worn they had to be discarded. Old clothing was harvested and laboriously cut into strips then pegged onto squares of sacking. Such an easy task that a child of five could learn to master it, and did so. We sat in the dying firelight on winter evenings from November to February and worked whilst listening to the radio – Life With The Lyons, Journey Into Space, Round The Horne and Meet The Huggetts. And of course the fruits of our labour were seen as a necessary winter pastime rather than possible future mementos of days gone by. I had completely forgotten about Rag Rugs and our annual ritual of producing them until I visited my brother’s house in Lincolnshire decades later. Rag Rugs had been utterly abandoned to the depths of memory until I came face to face with one once more in his Lincolnshire study, neatly settled on polished wood and announcing its presence with riotous colours. Then I was at once aware how overwhelmingly powerful these mementos that connect us with the past are. Instantaneously I was propelled back into that long ago kitchen at 28 York Road, harking back with longing to a time that had gone for ever and would never return.

Later I realised that he had kept safe all those knickknacks and keepsakes of our mother’s and I was suffused with gladness, a hard to describe delight akin to love for A Present From Margate and a Porcelain Kitten. But the most agonizing tug on the heart was unquestionably for the ivory satin card with red and gold lettering - To My Sweetheart From Fred. The tissue paper had gone though.