Thursday, 17 August 2017

1958 - A Year of Adventure

That's me at the back with the hunky Spaniard!

I haven’t posted a memoir-based post for some time so I’ll take up the story from when I first broke-up with my Beloved Bad Penny (see post from 8/11/16). This would around the beginning of 1958. All my friends seemed to be either engaged or at least seriously ‘courting, by then, considered essential in those days if you weren’t to be left ‘on the shelf.’ Help was at hand in the form of Winnie, whom I had met through some mutual friends. She had just broken up from a fairly long-term relationship and was as much at a loose end as I was, so we started going around together. Winnie was a year or two older, smaller than me, but with a jolly, cheery manner that made her fun to be with. Even then, Winnie was saving up to immigrate so couldn’t afford a regular holiday. We read about Friday Bridge Agricultural Holiday Camp in a newspaper advertisement and wrote off for details. When the brochure arrived, we learnt that the camp had originally been an Italian POW during the war. It had lots of the same facilities as a normal holiday camp but you could work on farms during the day to earn some money. We decided to give it a go and it turned out to be one of the best holidays I ever had.
            The accommodation was very basic, army-type beds and a single locker in a dormitory, and the food left much to be desired especially the sandwiches handed out after breakfast. The work was varied, mostly strawberry picking, and it was hard, back-breaking work, very often dirty, but great fun. We didn’t work every day; we took a couple of days off to hitch a ride into Wisbech and March, or Cambridge to look round the colleges. And everywhere, the juke boxes were playing Bobby Darin’s ‘Dream Lover.' You can hear it here
            On the camp, there was a bar and a dance several times a week but best of all there were lots of lovely foreign students, French, German, Dutch, Spanish and Swedish. Our own favourites were two Swedish boys, Bjorn and Georg, but as they left after our first week, we consoled ourselves with a lovely dark-browed, dark-eyed Spaniard from Madrid called Fernando. It was all good innocent fun; with everyone sleeping in segregated dormitories, there wasn’t much opportunity for anything else.
We made friends with a Londoner, Jean. Tall, slim, tanned, with an urchin haircut, she was stunningly attractive and a complete extrovert. She had a way of saying things like, ‘Disgusting – but dee-lightful’ that made it sound very naughty. Or she’d say with a dramatic sigh, ‘Roll on death and let’s have a bash at the angels.’ She was so different from anyone that either of us had ever met and we admired and envied her. Yet she was not in the slightest bit conceited. Instead she had warmth and spontaneity, which we later learned was characteristic of an East Ender, which she was. She worked for Zetters football pools which, being a seasonal occupation, left her free during the summer to take jobs such as strawberry picking. Her life seemed so glamorous compared to our humdrum existence.
Besides the two Wakes Weeks in the summer, Horwich industry closed for an additional few days in September and we followed up Jean’s invitation to visit her in London. Neither of us had been previously and although we were only going on a long weekend, we were nervously excited. We travelled overnight on a coach, arriving at Victoria Coach Station very early in the morning yet Jean was there to meet us. Groggy from travelling overnight and stupefied by the clamour of early morning London, we ascended into the cavernous heights of Liverpool Street Station and into the madhouse that is Commercial Road.
Our first real sight of Stepney on a Saturday morning had its own peculiar sights and smells, stale fat, rotting vegetables, urine, all mingled with a tangy heady aroma that we later learned came from joss sticks. That area of London was even then a polyglot of humanity from all corners of the world. Awesome sights and smells never to be forgotten for two lasses from a Lancashire mill town. Jean lived in a tenement-like flat in Flower and Dean Street, with her father, a Maltese sailor who was at sea at that time, and her mother, a diminutive sandy-haired woman. Being a Geordie who had lived most of her married life in Stepney, she made us doubly welcome though the flat was cramped and crowded with exotic knick-knacks.
London, shared with us by Jean, was a unique experience. It was the time of espresso coffee bars and we went to them all, including the Two I’s where Tommy Steele had been discovered. One of the most widely played records on the juke box then was, ‘Volaré’ (you can hear it here ) which seemed to sum up the heady continental atmosphere of the coffee bars at that time. Our own favourite was Heaven and Hell. It was split over two levels with the ground floor all white plastic and chrome, while the basement was dim, dungeon-like and wildly exciting.
I think it was in there that I met Stefan, who was a refugee from the 1956 Hungarian Uprising. Despite our general ignorance of world affairs, we all knew about the Hungarian Uprising, possibly because it involved the young. We’d been stirred by the sight of the students rioting against the Russian tanks and been saddened to see them mown down. The Uprising had lasted only days and most of the dissidents had fled, Stefan being one of them. It made him seem very glamorous to me, even though he could barely speak a word of English. He later sent me a postcard from Budapest asking if he could come and work in Horwich and live with me and my family. I never replied, I’d got cold feet by that time.
We went all over the place with Jean, dancing at Hammersmith Palais on Saturday night, Petticoat Lane Market and the Tower of London on the Sunday, gawped at the prostitutes still walking the streets of Soho, a crazy pub called Dirty Dick’s on Commercial Road, which had cobwebs hanging from the ceiling and sawdust on the floor. It was a big tourist attraction. I don’t know if it’s still there but I’m sure Health & Safety legislation would have something to say about it. At least the glasses were clean.
Horwich seemed decidedly parochial after London and we were left with feelings of dissatisfaction over our lot. Winnie met her future husband shortly after that and they were already planning to emigrate to Australia. What followed, for me, was a troublesome period when I seemed to meet up with the wrong lads/men who I’d prefer not to talk about. It was to be another few years before I plucked up the courage to leave Horwich and go to America.
It’s kind of ironic because, with my books being centred around Horwich, the town now plays a bigger part of my life than when I lived there! 
And as a postscript, Friday Bridge looks like it's now run by a recruitment company for migrant agricultural workers. You can read about it here. It doesn't look to have altered much except for the much posher accommodation.

Sunday, 2 July 2017

Forty Years On - Plus!

I'm the one just to the right behind the teacher.

 How many of us, singing that song in school assemblies all those years ago, could imagine ourselves forty years hence, let alone meeting up with our old school mates? Yet thanks to the wonders of the Internet, many of us have done that. Of course, the occasional newspaper stories about childhood sweethearts meeting up at school reunions, in some cases resulting in disrupted lives, can be a worrying aspect.
            Understandable then, that it was with some apprehension and nervousness, that a few years ago, I committed myself to attending a reunion of the 1955-57 leaving years of Farnworth Grammar School, originally located near Bolton, Lancashire, now sadly demolished to make way for the ubiquitous housing association development.
            While at school, I did not make friends easily, partly as a result of moving around with my parents’ jobs – as anyone who has read this blog before knows, they were in domestic service – and partly due to my own reserved nature. Joining the 1950 intake of Farnworth Grammar School late in the first term, by which time tentative friendships had been formed, and particularly when many of them had known each other from earlier school days, did not help either. I suppose I was lucky really; I could so easily have been bullied but for some reason I was not. I was teased but in a good-natured sort of way, made worse by being given a nickname by, of all people, our form-master, who used to read out the register until he got to the name of Anne Williams, almost the last on the register, when he called out ‘Wiggy.’
            So the anxiety and concern were perhaps justified. I had been such a nonentity at school, always on the outskirts of what was going on, the last one to be picked for team games, the one who was useless at PE. Would it be the same, I couldn’t help wondering, when I met up with them again? Thankfully, I was somewhat reassured by a couple of emails and a telephone conversation with the organisers.
            As I no longer live in the area, attending meant staying overnight at the hotel where the reunion was to take place. This could be a problem if the occasion turned out to be a disaster but I consoled myself that I could always sneak away early if that turned out to be the case. Walking into the lounge where we were to meet for afternoon tea, I was hit by a horrible thought. What if no one remembered me?
            I needn’t have worried. With my question ‘Is this the Farnworth Grammar School Group?’ a small, still slender woman with a vaguely familiar face rose to greet me and ask me my name, ticking if off a list.
Rita, the person who’d arranged this reunion and whom I’d spoken to on the phone, came forward then and said immediately ‘Anne, you haven’t changed a bit.’ Oh, no? What about the grey hair, the face in which gravity had taken over, not to mention the saggy bits on what had once been a skinny frame? I soon discovered though, that beneath the physical exterior of everyone there, you could still make out the youthful features of former schoolmates, so presumably it was the same for me.
This was confirmed when another woman, slightly frail looking but with an eager smile on her face said ‘It’s Anne, isn’t it? Didn’t we used to call you ‘Wiggy’?’ Oh, that dreaded nickname but which at least gave me some kind of identity.
A man came and sat at the side of me, apologising that he didn’t remember me. I didn’t recall his face either, but together we examined our form photograph taken in Coronation Year, 1953. That was him? But I remembered him as being tall and with abundant sandy gold locks! ‘What happened?’ I asked.
‘I stopped growing shortly after that’ he laughed, ‘and lost my hair’. It didn’t matter, what he lacked in height and hair, he made up for in humour. ‘Later’ he joked, ‘we all compare our ailments and what tablets we’re taking’.
            There were many such exclamations of wonder and amazement. Names were dropped, memories long forgotten re-surfaced, seemed as fresh as yesterday. There were shrieks of laughter over photographs produced and reminiscences of that teacher, this pupil, came to light.
            The mood continued over dinner that night when I found I was able to relax and really enjoy myself, even raising a laugh or two, something I’d never have been able to do all those years ago. But then, I’ve led a full and varied life and after a successful career, I’m no longer the shrinking violet I once was but well able to hold my own in company. Listening to the others talking, I couldn’t help reflecting on the many stories that made up our very differing lives.
            When it came to parting the next day after breakfast, everyone lingered, seemingly reluctant to say goodbye. There were many hugs and promises to keep in touch and meet up again next year. I left rather earlier than the others as I had further to travel than most of them, who still lived in and around the area, but as I did so, it with was the warm feeling of belonging in a way I’d never felt all those forty – plus – years ago.
            Sadly, I never did keep in touch. I wonder why?

Wednesday, 10 May 2017

An early 20th Century childhood

Mum was the chubby one to the right of my Grandma

While sorting out some files on my computer recently, I found one about my late mother’s early 20th century childhood. Just right for Passionate about the Past, I thought. For the record, my mother was born in April 1911 just two days after the 1911 census was taken. What follows are her words, edited by me.

            My father, William Morris, was killed at Gallipoli in 1915 when I was four years old. The only memory I have of him is seeing him walking down the street in his uniform. I was standing in our doorway, holding Aunty Mary Ellen’s hand at the time, and I had to ask her who the strange man was.

            Aunty Mary Ellen was my mother’s sister and she lived with us most of the time, sleeping on a sofa because there was nowhere else for her to sleep. She had a crippled leg and couldn’t work. Some of the time, she had to go in to the workhouse at Fishpool (Bolton) and she died there in 1931. I loved my Aunty Mary Ellen, she was always cheerful and I can see her now sitting in the rocking chair, her cheeks rosy from the heat of the fire, singing one of her silly little ditties.

            I got into trouble once at a tea party for singing one of Aunty Mary Ellen’s songs about a young woman who pretended to be a soldier in order to stay with her sweetheart. It was the phrase ‘her lily white breast’ that earned me a telling off from the good ladies of the Co-operative Guild.

            There were six of us, three boys and three girls. The boys slept in the back bedroom of our two-up, two-down house in Wright Street, while us three girls slept in the front bedroom with our mother. She had one bed, we three the other. Our Mary, being the eldest, slept at the top, while me and our Annie had to make do with the bottom bit. There wasn’t much room in the bedroom but somehow we managed to make a swing between the two beds with an old piece of blanket.

            With my mother being a widow, we were very poor and I remember being sent to the butcher’s for ‘6 pennorth o’bits’ We only ever had half an egg each, with a whole one as a treat at Easter. I remember, too, drinking tea out of jam jars and standing round the kitchen table because we didn’t have enough chairs.

            Clothes were always ‘hand-me-downs’ or bought second or third hand. Shoes came from Mrs Cooper, who kept a stock of assorted sizes. You had to rummage through until you found a matching pair that fitted reasonably well. I was a bit luckier than my two sisters. My mother used to clean at a big house in Rivington and the housekeeper there had a daughter about the same age as me. Her cast-offs were always given to my mother and they would only fit me. This way I once inherited a pair of kid gloves that I refused to take off, even in bed.

            When I was 11, I passed a scholarship for orphans of the war and went to Rivington and Blackrod Grammar School. How my mother managed the uniform, I don’t know. At one point I had to have a navy swimming costume. My mother managed to get hold of a grey one and dyed it navy. Unfortunately, the first time I went into the water, the dye ran and streaked all down my legs. At the school, being a Catholic at a Protestant school, I was excused from Religious Education lessons and had to sit them out in the cloakroom.

            There was a gang of us girls used to meet on the corner of our street. If it was cold, we used to stand against the wall of a baker’s shop near the Tram Shed, which stayed warm because of the ovens.

            We used to walk for miles with only a bottle of water to keep us going. We’d go down Bob’s Brow, a hill in Crown Lane leading to fields, a stream which we’d paddle in and even a waterfall. Once, a man flashed his willie at us but we just laughed at him, we never thought of it being dangerous. From Bob’s Brow, you could walk right through to Blackrod.

            Going ‘Up Rivi’ was one of our favourite walks, especially on a Sunday afternoon. Often we walked through to Belmont or all round the Lakes, coming out by the Millstone, then along the banking by the reservoir to home.

            When I was 13, my mother fell off a chair while cleaning windows and shortly afterwards fell seriously ill with pneumonia. The priest from St Mary’s was called to administer the last rites to my mother but he refused to do so. He said would only do that if ‘that girl’ (pointing to me) left ‘that Protestant School’. My mother, ill as she was, argued with him and forbade me to leave, but as she grew weaker and I came under more pressure from the priest, I said I would leave so that she could have the last rites.

            After she died, the authorities wanted to split us up and put us in an orphanage but by then our John was 19 and our Mary nearly 19 (John was born in January 1905 while Mary was born in December 1905) so they insisted that they would bring us up. I was 13, Annie 15, George 11 and our Bob only 6. How they did it, I don’t know, but they did and I’m here to tell the tale, the only one left now.

The areas mentioned are in and around Horwich, near Bolton, Lancashire and are featured in my novel A Suitable Young Man, about life in the 1950s. For details of how to obtain, click on the link to the side.