Thursday, 31 August 2017

The Folly Of Fake Families

From the relatively tender age of eight or nine I began to throw myself enthusiastically into the exciting biosphere of Fake Families, inventing a variety of unlikely maternal replacements for my own mother who continued to fall far short of my youthful expectations, and a diverse range of phony siblings. Thus many happy hours were spent making notes of names and ages and details of the varied and very pleasing homes in which we lived. At times I simply moved us from 28 York Road to a six room eighteenth century weatherboard cottage on the outskirts of Gravesend such as the pleasant, rural communities of Shorne or Cliffe, first taking care to install a totally modern bathroom at great cost on the first floor landing. On other occasions we settled happily into a late nineteenth century house in Darnley Road with Art Nouveau stained glass in the ground floor windows and black and white tiling in the entrance hall. For a brief month or two, recalling a trip to Upnor on the pillion of my father’s motor bike, a newly created family took up residence in an ancient cottage in the High Street and enjoyed the envious gaze of Sunday afternoon visitors on coach outings to Places of Interest.

I usually gave myself a new and more acceptably middle class name like Penelope – but was affectionately known as Penny to my friends. Penny’s particular mother for some months was Julia, a famous pianist. Her stepfather Nick gambled, a habit that was tolerated by Julia with good humour because she earned so much money on her overseas tours that it didn’t really matter. There was also a younger brother called Sebastian who played the violin and was something of a prodigy causing Penny a lot of resentment which I happily discussed at school at some length at morning playtime. This Faux Family was loosely based on the characters in a Noel Streatfield book and soon bored my classmates at St Botolph’s because even the keen readers found Enid Blyton more to their taste.

When I tired of Penelope I became Stephanie (known as Stevie) living with a film actress mother, Fiona and an ubiquitous stepfather who hovered in the background, who went by the name of Cameron and was largely absent. He drove a white sports car, was a lawyer and spent most of his time in London but often flew to New York for reasons that I could not adequately explain except that the idea appealed to me.

When Stevie failed to deliver suitable stimulus I became the even more exotic Carlotta, secret daughter of King Juan Carlos of Spain, conceived with a maidservant. By this time I was a little older and becoming more familiar with irregular conceptions as one by one my older cousins began to encounter obstacles in life which my mother described as Getting Into Trouble if she sympathized with them or Taking Trouble Home to her Poor Mother if she did not. In Carlotta’s case, quite unlike the suiters of my unfortunate relatives, the generous Juan Carlos purchased a dog breeding business for his illegitimate daughter. It was situated at High Halstow and the breeds ranged from tiny toy terriers to giant wolfhounds. Carlotta lived there in a thatched cottage with two Spanish serving maids who helped with the daily exercise on the sheep levels. Every few months Juan Carlos visited and took Carlotta to afternoon tea in the village of Cobham, greatly impressing the villagers who somehow or other all realized at once that he had an aristocratic background.

By the time I had spent two years at Northfleet Secondary School for Girls and was about to go on to Wombwell Hall, I was living quite a number of fictional lives and in order not to become confused with regard to the various events taking place within them, I was forced to keep ever more extensive and meticulous notes on the detail of each. I was beginning to realise that being a committed fantasist was not straightforward and took more time and energy than most girls of my age would have been prepared to give to such a project. Homework became an irritating interruption and was frequently left uncompleted. On the other hand, whilst others were rebelling about early bedtimes I was more than happy to have early nights, particularly in winter, in order to give enough time to what I called Thinks, which was more accurately the hours of invention and planning concerning the progress through life of my many alter-egos.

My friend Molly from number 31 York Road, had initially wholeheartedly gone along with the idea of fantasy families but her own inventions did not change as frequently as mine did and generally involved Doris Day in one way or another, either as a mother or an older sister. As my own creations grew ever more complicated I could not help noticing that her enthusiasm began to wane which I thought was a pity. As for my confused classmates, I neither knew nor cared what they thought of the rapidly revolving characters I claimed were my closest relatives. My prime concern with regard to school was to ensure that my mother did not turn up to any of the Meet The Teachers evenings which fortunately were not organized terribly often in those days.

From time to time I casually made mention of my mythical stepfathers to my teachers and as I was not completely naive I was keen to avoid the possibility of them coming face to face with a woman they would at once realise was not likely to be married to Nick the Gambler or Cameron the Lawyer. To complicate matters even further I had made each mother a mere thirty years old, having conceived Penny or Stevie and their like as a teenager. The Real Fathers had usually perished in air accidents in the latter year or two of the war. Sometimes I cut out glamorous magazine photographs and claimed they were my mother, regardless of the unlikely possibility of her ever actually owning a mink coat or attending a film premiere in Leicester Square.

In my first year at Northfleet Girls’Secondary School, Sylvia Mason jabbed her forefinger at the woman in the latest picture (who was shaking hands with Princess Margaret I seem to recall) and asked me to explain how it was, if that was my Mum that we were living in York Road. This was an unfortunate question and I had to explain that we didn’t live there all the time but that my Mother liked to spend time there because she had been left the house by my real father’s childhood Nanny. My reading material had by that time greatly extended, and involved Edwardian family sagas of wronged women and lost fortunes. Sylvia’s obvious distrust of my story did not unduly bother me since she had herself told most unlikely tales about being an Identical Twin whose sister, Susan, was Brainy and now attended The Girls’Grammar and furthermore there were two other sets of twins in her family, boys of four and six. That seemed most unlikely to be true. My part time friend Shirley Munro said that Sylvia was known for her lies and it was because her family had recently been rehoused into a brand new Council House on the spanking new, wide avenued Singlewell Estate. It had gone to her head, she thought. Undeterred Sylvia continued to distrust my own stories and said that she thought I talked a Load of Bully Beef. Her Aunt used to live in York Road and had said for years that those houses ought to be condemned because there were no bathrooms and you had to walk up the back yard to go to the lav.

I told her she could think what she liked and that her ignorant thoughts did not bother me but I walked away with a thumping heart because this particular exchange had been witnessed by at least half a dozen interested Form One girls. On the other hand many of us at that time lived in houses that should be condemned, all without running hot water and bathrooms. However, I came to the reluctant conclusion that it would be prudent to stop producing magazine photographs of my mother.

Decades later I was startled when my brother admitted that he had indulged in very similar family replacement fictions. We each then claimed to wonder how and why the fabrications had come about, and asked each other what on earth could have prompted such gross deceptions and falsehoods. But even as we professed to analyse the matter we were both totally aware that the answer was straightforward and simple and that no mystery was attached to it. Unlike our friends and neighbours we each, even at a very tender age became wholly discontented with what appeared to be Our Lot.

Wednesday, 23 August 2017


As our time at Wombwell Hall drew to a close we Girls Of 2SC were all given Important Letters to take home to our parents. Miss Eatch clutched the slim white envelopes to her person, just beneath her ample and somewhat wobbly bosom that we were inclined rather unkindly, to snigger at. She had some concerns about the following year, she explained, and wanted to tell us what the letters contained. We learned that the majority of parents were informed that their daughter had been an enthusiastic and pleasant class member who would do well in the workplace, and positively thrive in a nice clean, well run Typing Pool. They were daughters any parent could be proud of. Several students were cautiously nominated for possibly enrolling for a further year because with focus and commitment they might well find themselves able to pass the new-fangled GCSE Ordinary Level Examination and that would undoubtedly lead on to an even bigger and brighter Typing Pool. A select few of the white envelopes generously praised the intellectual potential of the girl named within and strongly recommended the extra school year as there was little doubt that she was made of the stuff that passed exams. Such girls might well become Personal Assistants to Managing Directors in far flung places like Maidstone.

But most exciting of all - one of us was actually considered to be capable of Getting A Proper Degree at some stage in the future. She shouldn’t really be one of us at all because she belonged in a Grammar School. Valerie was University Material Without A Shadow Of A Doubt. When Yvonne who had once been my friend and was now Valerie’s friend heard this she turned and gave the whole class the kind of smile that almost blinded us with its radiance, then bowed her head just a little. Valerie’s success was also her success. I couldn’t help thinking just a little regretfully that it was a good thing she had shed my friendship whilst we were in the early stages of that first Wombwell Hall year as I would never have been capable of instilling such pride in her teenage breast.

Miss Eatch was encouraging us to applaud Valerie’s success and whilst we did so I wondered what A Degree might be and how one went about getting one because judging by Yvonne’s reaction the idea should bring any normal person close to ecstasy and indeed the unusually deferential manner of Miss Eatch herself indicated it was clearly something worth striving for. Valerie, cheeks flushed with pleasure was talking about the relative benefits of Oxford because that’s where Daddy had wanted to go before his education had been interrupted, and Cambridge which her mother favoured. I wondered what form the interruption that she was managing to make sound like a tragedy of gigantic proportion, had taken. And what was to happen to Yvonne whilst Valerie was involved in furthering her education in places that sounded even further from Gravesend than either Maidstone or London?

After school, walking down the driveway, past the badger setts in the bankside and into Hall Road itself, Joyce Williams who had recently become a half-hearted Close Friend, asked what I thought the attitude of Those At Home might be at the thought of me enrolling in the Exam Year. We had both been included in Miss Eatch’s second category and so were cautious nominees for exam passing. This was all very flattering in that it plucked us just a little from The Herd, but it had to be borne in mind that when handing over the envelopes Miss Eatch had hesitated before both of us and said that in our case the suggestion carried with it some concern as to our Actual Ability To Apply Ourselves and we should talk it through with our families very thoroughly, Remembering these words and the tone in which they had been uttered I shrugged and said to Joyce that I Couldn’t Care Less which was the 1956 equivalent of Do I Look Bovvered? Joyce said well she cared because she was very keen to get a job. I was still contemplating the various forms a Degree might take and why it couldn’t be taken for example, in London which, had I been Valerie, would have made all the difference in the world.

When I got home with my white envelope it seemed somehow inevitable that my Grandmother would be at the kitchen table with my mother. The large brown teapot covered by the crochet crinoline lady sat between them. Old Nan sniffed and folded her arms across her chest which indicated that she was even more anxious than my mother to know what was inside the envelope and when the contents were read aloud to her there was a silence whilst I looked from one to the other with almost a tinge of excitement. To fill the silence I advised with as much authority I could muster that a lot of the girls were definitely staying on for an extra year and that Valerie had even been told she was University Material and could get a Degree. She might be going to Oxford or even Cambridge but apparently not London.

Old Nan sniffed again and said she wasn’t partial to either of them places. In fact she could never bring herself to trust any place to do with boats and water and it stood to reason. My mother looked uncertain, shaking her head from side to side and suddenly dropping the letter on the table almost as if it was no longer safe to touch it. She said that more school at my age seemed all wrong to her. I was nearly sixteen after all. But my Grandmother, dragging the crinoline lady from the pot so savagely that she almost decapitated her and pouring herself a very full cup, had no doubts whatsoever. She thought that the whole lot of them schoolteachers must be Stark Bleeding Mad and they wanted shooting for even suggesting such a Damn Fool Idea. If she had her way she’d line up the whole lot of them outside that school and Shoot Them soon as look at them. More Schooling? More? For a great girl like me? The only thing I needed in her opinion, and she wasn’t one to give opinions where they wasn’t asked for, was to get up off my Fat Arse and bring in some money.

I softly but courageously asked if that money might be made in the pea fields and she responded with the fact that beans and taters were starting soon and gave me the kind of look that crushed the possibility of further daring comment. What was wrong with me and a fair number of my cousins was that we’d been Molly-coddled, Spoilt Rotten and had too much schooling to put fool ideas into our noddles. She’d never had a day of schooling and yet nobody could say the lack of it had held her back. My mother said little but glanced at the kitchen clock from time to time.

When she left for the 480 bus back to Crayford, me walking beside her to the bus stop and carrying the newspaper parcel of flounder and shrimps that had been purchased during the afternoon, my Grandmother looked sideways at me from time to time, lips pursed and saying nothing. Back at York Road there was a little more sluggish discussion on the benefits of examinations that would ensure a bigger typing pool. In general terms, however, it was decided that at the end of that term I would join the majority of girls in my class and head towards the workplace. To be fair I was not completely against the idea because the thought of becoming a regular wage earner and able to buy a blue Orlon twin set from Marks & Spencer’s if I so wished, greatly appealed to me. And it wasn’t even as if it would be for long because there were of course plans to be made about my Glorious Future. Evaluations to be considered, important decisions weighed up concerning the correct path towards stardom on stage and screen for instance and how I would be able to find enough time to write the best-selling novels I already had planned. Glittering futures needed an enormous amount of forward planning.

Wednesday, 16 August 2017

A Very Junior Typist For The Lovells

My love affair with London emerged out of the books I borrowed from the library. This was almost certainly the case because when I looked back on my short life on the occasion of my fourteenth birthday, I realized I had only visited the city twice. Once was with my father when I was nine years old and he took me to the British Museum and again when I was thirteen when my mother organized a quite unexpected outing to London Zoo with a neighbor as a treat for my brother’s sixth birthday. Being quite unaccustomed to birthday treats the experience became vivid in memory. I was desperately anxious to make a trip to the exciting city only twenty miles up The Thames, by myself, an independent traveller but money was always the obstacle. The return ticket on the fast train was five shillings, slightly less on the slow train and even if I only allowed a little more for the necessary spending, the thought of somehow or other coming by the huge sum of almost ten shillings seemed quite impossible. Money, or the lack of it, invariably stood in the way of the progressing of my objectives.

My mother’s employers, The Lovells, had donated an outdated office typewriter to me when I first went to Wombwell Hall and began the Commercial Course that was going to give me a nice clean office job. The machine was an Underwood, made in 1914 and it took the combined efforts of the Lovell brothers, Mr. Christopher and Mr. Lawrence to transfer it from the back seat of their father’s car onto our kitchen table. My mother looked at it doubtfully, knowing how unlikely it was for it ever to be transferred elsewhere and Old Nan commented that she would have told them where to Shove It if she’d been present at its delivery and that it was the likes of Them Lovells That gave me my Airs & Graces. Nevertheless it was a most exciting moment as far as I was concerned especially as they had also given me a whole ream of A4 pale blue copy paper to accompany it. There was no doubt in my mind that I was now in possession of all I needed in order to become a famous novelist and in the interim I would be able to write letters to newspapers complaining about the lack of social housing and the behaviour of some local children on buses.

Because of the financial restraints our family was under, once the pale blue A4 paper ran out, which it did surprisingly quickly, I was not in a position to replace it so I began to steal paper from Miss Hart’s typing class at school, two or three sheets at any one time and I was always careful to use both sides once the thefts began which made me feel virtuous and very soon I did not look upon this pilfering as anything other than justified.
The positive aspect of both the typewriter and the thefts was that my typing was improving in leaps and bounds and I became by far the fastest and most accurate typist Miss Hart had ever encountered in her fifty two years of teaching, which was flattering if indeed it was true. She told me with her usual enthusiasm that I was a Natural Office Worker and would undoubtedly rise to the top of any Typing Pool.

When my mother proudly conveyed this pleasing news to the Lovells something very exciting happened. Mr. Bertram Lovell decided that during the coming school summer holiday period I should work in his office from nine until five daily as a junior shorthand typist and office assistant for which I would be paid one pound per week. Predictably Old Nan commented that this was Daylight Bleeding Robbery and even Aunts Martha and Maud were doubtful because their Pat and their June were getting nine and sixpence each on Saturdays at Woolworths in Dartford. Having never been the recipient of any sum in excess of two shillings previously in my life I was entirely elated. The reality of taking on the job at the tender age of not quite fifteen, however, proved when the time came to cause me more anxiety than I had bargained for.

Mr. Bertram Lovell was a lawyer and worked with his lawyer son, Mr. Christopher and a clerk called Henry in a tall house in one of the roads to the West of the station. Their secretary was called Pauline and she was engaged to Donald who lived in Norfolk and came from a farming background. She seemed to be very competent and I was quite taken aback by her shorthand speed because until I met her, I was convinced that being the fastest shorthand writer in Miss Hart’s class, I must also be the fastest in our corner of Kent. My first dictation session with Mr. Lovell Senior caused me to immediately revise that opinion.

There was really little need for me to be frightened of him. My mother had worked for the family for a number of years, cleaning their house dutifully three times each week and I had met each member of the family on a number of occasions. Nevertheless he struck fear into my heart, sitting there behind the wide expanse of desk wearing his dark blue pin stripe suit and burgundy tie and radiating middle class authority. He smiled, displaying huge yellow teeth and told me he would speak very slowly and that I should Sing Out At Once if I couldn’t keep up. He then proceeded to dictate three short letters at what I could only consider to be a horrendously rapid speed. However, helpful Pauline reassured me and said she’d been listening and had been relieved that he was going so slowly. I nodded, fought back tears that were almost choking me and turned my attention to the struggle ahead which was to decipher the symbols that jumped up and down on the page, trusting to luck that I would be able to make something of them and type up the result whilst it was all still fresh in my mind. However, the next day I courageously and firmly made the request that he slowed down – which he did, and thereafter, better still, I endeavoured to be the one who took dictation from Mr. Christopher who at least stopped every few seconds to think about what he might say next.

At the end of the first week, the one pound note in my brown wage packet was an event that was hard to process rationally, especially as the Lovells had kindly added a further one shilling and sixpence to cover my bus fares to and from Northfleet on the 496. I was officially a wage earner. Deliriously excited, instead of heading for the bus stop on that first Friday afternoon, I made my way to the book department at Bon Marche in the town centre where they didn’t close until six, and browsed among the poetry books. Eventually after a great deal of indecision I made my first purchase - an anthology containing my at the time favourites and costing four shillings and sixpence. On that delicious Friday life could hardly have been better. As time went on I discovered that my favourite reading matter could often be found in either one of the local second hand bookshops at greatly reduced prices which made me even happier.

Becoming a wage earner certainly improved both my self-esteem and my wardrobe. Not only did I become the proud owner of two orlon cardigans in pastel colours, at the same time I began to learn a little of the intricacies of the legal ups and downs in my home town. Most of the work the Lovells did was straightforward and boring but from time to time young Mr. Christopher was called upon to represent a minor criminal about to excitingly go through the local court system. These petty criminals fascinated me, especially if they sported DA haircuts and wore Teddy Boy suits with velvet collars. I twittered around them, hoping desperately to be noticed and perhaps asked out for one of the frothy topped cappuccinos just beginning to infiltrate local cafes, all now hastily renaming themselves from The Copper Kettle and Julie’s Teas to Daddy O’s and The Gondalier. Unfortunately I was generally ignored and thus forced to slouch hopefully across the blue formica tables alone whilst trying to appear slightly bored but interesting instead of anxious and optimistic.

My mother rapidly decided that I should share my current good fortune with my brother and donate two shillings of my weekly wage to him as pocket money. I did so resentfully. though he was of course, delighted and began also to haunt second hand shops for books on ornithology, his latest fixation.

When that eventful summer of 1955 was over I had made three trips on the fast train to Charing Cross to prowl the streets of London alone which was exhilarating, on one occasion not returning until nearly midnight which caused my mother huge distress. Furthermore when I returned to school I was of course even further ahead of my classmates in Miss Hart’s classes. She complimented me in front of the entire class pointing out that Most Girls Slide Back Over Summer and reiterating that I was a Born Office Worker and would undoubtedly Go Far in a work environment that supported a Big Pool, perhaps a Shipping Company or even an Insurance Company. Much despised Valerie Goldsack pointed out that as I had been working throughout the summer my progress was unsurprising but Miss Hart kindly ignored her which was thrilling because generally the staff admired Valerie because of her father being in the Police Force.

It was more than uplifting to be the object of praise but although my sudden flair for office work might advance me through the typing ranks at a faster rate than my peers in Class 2SC at Wombwell Hall I was only too aware that this startling ability in the commercial subjects unfortunately did not spread into other areas of the curriculum. The two Miss Smiths in the English Department for instance were most definitely not as impressed with my competence as I would have liked. My greatly adored Miss K. Smith had all too recently advised me that essays did not have to be quite as long as I seemed to imagine. For instance, my descriptive piece on London At Night, she said, was inclined to make even the most avid reader a little sleepy!

Saturday, 12 August 2017

Thoughts On The Great Roy Budd.....

It came to my attention only yesterday that the late, great Roy Budd’s symphonic score for the silent film The Phantom of the Opera is to be at last performed - at The London Coliseum on October 8th this year. Roy died suddenly in 1993 at the age of 46 just a couple of weeks before the organised screening at The Barbican. It has so far never been played in public but now, 24 years after his death, it will finally get its premiere. Roy was a brilliant musician and composer, well known for the film scores of movies like Get Carter, Flight of the Doves and many more. He was a self taught pianist and a child prodigy, first performing at the London Coliseum at the age of six.
He became a close friend during the nineteen sixties, supporting me through all the drama of a relationship break up and the subsequent trials and tribulations of being a solo mother at a time when single women with small children were frequently side lined in society. We dated on and off and a little half-heartedly over a number of years and he told me when he was 19 or 20 that our relationship should work well because he liked older women like me (I was 27 at the time and didn’t know whether to be flattered or not). On one momentous occasion he informed me he had to dump me for another woman – the woman was Pier Angeli so I was somewhat mollified. His brother Peter now says that later he dumped her also! There was a part of his character that remained delightfully naïve despite his extraordinary musical success. On an early trip to California he would ring in several times a week to excitedly fill me in on the rich and famous he had met.
I am delighted that Roy’s last great work is finally to be performed, yet the feeling is tinged with so much sadness that he was lost to us so young.

Thursday, 10 August 2017

Dimly Lit Corridors of the On Line World

This is I admit yet another rant about the inadequacies and shortcomings of The On Line World. As I have said before, and not even so very long ago, I am not a terribly good advocate for Political Correctness which clearly and immediately defines me as One Of The Enemy in some corners of Forums for Freedom of Speech. This is not to say that I go through life loudly proclaiming my Improper Beliefs to all and sundry because usually I keep them to myself. However, with an Election looming within a matter of weeks political matters are being discussed even in the Real & Absolute World and can at times be heard amongst strangers at bus stops and supermarket queues. For instance it is clear that for some, Ms Metiria Turei now sits very close indeed to Mother Teresa and The Virgin Mary and may at some stage be nominated for sainthood, despite her past abuses of the social welfare system and her present air of smug satisfaction and ongoing attitude of entitlement. I have trained myself to consider the fact that as a Mere Right Winger, I am incapable of discerning the Ultimate Good in this Hard Working Member of Parliament.

After all, it seems only yesterday that I was remonstrated with severely for unwisely leaping to the defence of the then Prime Minister, John Key saying that what I liked about him was his ability to be pleasant to those who castigated him and the fact that he did not get involved with name calling and mud slinging like most of his predecessors. In retrospect the voicing of such admiration now seems naïve considering how rapidly I was torn to shreds by those who clearly did not share my views. Within minutes I was called, a Bitch, a Troll, a Moron and advised to keep such comments to myself. As a relative newcomer to the Exciting On Line World I had not quite understood that it was only really safe to express views that others agreed with. Since then I have tried very hard not to Cause Offence and always couch my opinions in non threatening language, whilst assuring one and all that I am aware that my views will not be shared by everyone. Nevertheless the effect can still surprise – on one momentous occasion a bystander advising that he was: Well and truly over bitches like me who were into this `live and let live’ idea that allowed every moronic fucker to have an opinion.

You could say that the On Line World speaks glibly of Ethics, Principles and Common Decency but these basic codes of human interaction are only applied on the odd occasion. Just as the timid and insecure among us in the Real World become more confident from behind the safety of sunglasses, so those who habitually prowl the dim corridors of the Virtual World are more happily menacing to opponents from the even greater security of pseudonyms and anonymity. Sadly it appears that rather than providing venues for Freedom of Speech, on line forums become ever more the preserve of those whose greatest fear is that Ideas They Do Not Agree With might be expressed. As Josef Stalin pointed out in his wisdom – Ideas Are Far More Dangerous Things Than Guns.