Sunday, 30 March 2014

Life in Post-war Birmingham - Part Two


Me in my patriotic red, white and blue dress
While we were living in Birmingham,
I went to George Dixon Junior School, situated on the other side of Hagley Road, Edgbaston, which I had to cross twice daily. There were no lollipop men or women then and Hagley Road was, as I suppose it still is, one of the busiest roads in Birmingham. Neither was I escorted as today’s children are. We made our own to and from school. It was a typical Victorian school with classrooms leading off a large assembly hall. The only clear memory I have of the place was being rapped with a ruler over the knuckles by one of the more stern teachers for some misdemeanour I hadn’t done but took the blame for. Oh, and some sort of Victory celebration. All of us had to take portions of margarine, sugar and dried eggs from our rations to school, to be made up into buns. Mum made me a dress especially for the occasion, blue and white stripes with red piping. Very patriotic it was!
            For some reason I didn’t understand at the time, rationing was even more severe after the war and it continued long into the Fifties. It was only many years later that I learned it was because of the need to feed the starving Germans in the British Occupied Zone and the fact that our own country was virtually bankrupt after the war. Bread, which hadn’t been rationed during the war, was rationed afterwards for the same reason. I remember once being sent for our loaf ration to the bakers on Hagley Road. I wandered back, dawdling and day-dreaming as I was wont to do, while nibbling the crusty bits off the loaf. Mum was not pleased. Hardest of all for us children was the fact that sweets were also on ration with something like a miserly 2 ozs allowed per person per week. We used to make do with a mixture of cocoa and sugar into which we dipped a finger damp with spit. I discovered that if you put a touch of custard powder in, it gave the mixture a smoother taste and took away some of the bitterness of the cocoa.
            In January and February 1947, we experienced the coldest weather anyone could ever remember. The whole country was hit by power cuts and we lived our lives by candlelight and bathed in the regulation 4inches of water. The piercing and unrelieved cold was matched by the Cold War as Communism clamped unmercifully down in Europe. They were days of unremitting austerity when only the spivs grew rich on the black market and certain goods were available only under the counter. I tasted my first banana in 1947 when Mum managed to obtain some by just such means. I didn’t know what it was but it tasted delicious.
            Yet comparatively speaking, these were fortunate days for the Williams family for we often dined on Mr Barclay’s left-overs. Before I was 8, I had developed a taste for smoked salmon which I have never lost, though I never did like oysters or caviar. Most people were making do on a miserly 8d of meat per week, a scrape of margarine, and dried eggs, still very much the staple diet. There were dozens of different ways to serve them, thanks to the plentiful, ‘Tips for Healthy Eating’ from the Ministry of Food. Or was it the Ministry of Health?
            Although petrol was also rationed, Mr Barclay was allocated extra because of his disability and let Dad have the use of the car occasionally. Mum and Dad were allowed one day off a week, usually a Thursday, and they used to meet me from school, take me into town to have some tea at a cafĂ© somewhere. Then we’d go on to either the cinema or the theatre. My love of both was born out these very special treats although my first real experience of the cinema terrified me. We’d gone to see Judy Garland in ‘The Wizard of Oz’ and I cried so much when the Wicked Witch of the West came on that my parents had to take out of the cinema. Yet on another occasion, when we’d been to see Judy Holliday in ‘Stand Up As She Goes,’ I loved it so much, I didn’t want to leave and remember standing in the darkened aisle begging to be allowed to see it again.
            There was the time, too, when we went to the theatre to see Michael Miles in some quiz show. Very often on these trips out, we’d take a theatre box. It felt rather splendid and regal to be seated in a box overlooking the stage, especially when Michael Miles drew attention to the little girl in the rose-patterned dress. He wanted me to go down to the stage but I couldn’t. I had my ankle in plaster and was using crutches. For once though, it was nice to be the centre of attention, with a spotlight on me and people in the audience clapping because Michael Miles had elicited their sympathy.
            Birmingham city centre had suffered considerable bomb damage and we grew used to seeing bomb sites softened by masses of rose bay willow herb and ragwort. The damage was nothing compared to that of Birmingham’s neighbour, Coventry, which we saw on one of our trips out. Mum and Dad were very quiet, I remember, probably at the sight of such whole scale destruction. It is the old Cathedral which sticks in my mind, its burnt timbers thrusting starkly to the sky, the piles of fallen centuries-old masonry, a brave testament to time. More poignant than this was the lunchtime service, crowded with people standing amid the ruins singing a hymn to the glory of God.
            The memories weren’t always happy ones as my father was nearly killed in a road accident while we were in Birmingham. He’d been driving along a main road when someone came out of a side road without stopping, hitting Dad square and practically demolishing the small Vauxhall. Fortunately, he was unhurt but I remember us going to the hospital some time after for him to have a check-up. Mum and I sat in the big Humber outside listening to the broadcast of Princess Elizabeth’s wedding to Philip Mountbatten in November 1947.
            There was much more reverence for the Royal Family then. Almost every public building had a picture of the King on their walls. We followed their doings as avidly as today’s youngsters follow those of so-called celebrities. Like many of my contemporaries, I had a thick scrapbook of all their photographs and I can clearly remember including a detailed drawing of the Princess’s wedding dress. I still had the scrapbook many years later, despite our many moves around the country.


Saturday, 8 March 2014

Memories of living in a grand house

Mum and I outside the front porch
In 1947, we moved to a large house in Edgbaston, Birmingham, again with Mum as cook-housekeeper, Dad as chauffeur-gardener. Life in Birmingham gained new meaning for me in that it took on form and substance rather than a series of disjointed memories.

          The house was a large redbrick Victorian detached house with a majestic front porch jutting onto a small gravel drive. The porch led into a large hall with sweeping steps up to a landing and bedrooms. Off the hall was a dining room, a drawing room and a huge library with a garden terrace through French windows. A green baize door behind the stairs led into the kitchen and butler’s pantry and our private sitting room. On the first floor were three or four bedrooms, which I never got to see much. Our bedrooms and other spare bedrooms were on the second floor, together with some narrow stairs which led to several attics, a bit frightening for a timid seven-year-old.

          The garden, at first, was a couple of acres running rectangular from the house, easily managed by my father, whose knowledge of gardening was, of necessity, increasing daily. I’ve often wondered how he managed to land the job of gardener as he’d had no formal training. Outside the library was a paved area and a lawn which sloped down to rose beds and herbaceous borders. There was a potting shed and a greenhouse to the side, with a vegetable garden. I spent a lot of time in the garden with Dad and it was from this time that my love of gardening was born. Later, the owner of the house bought some adjoining land, forming an L-shape with the original garden. This provided extra lawns, all manner of fruit trees and a huge lily-filled pond with a path around it. And there were lots of frogs; I didn’t like them or the way they made you jump when you weren’t aware they were there. A solitary child, the gardens were my playground and blessed with a vivid imagination, I played for hours beneath a crab apple tree surrounded by masses of red, orange and yellow nasturtiums. Even then, I made up stories and enacted them.

          I remember Mr Barclay, the owner, as a pink and portly gentleman with thinning grey hair who spoke ponderously and precisely. Mum always said, with some affection, that he was a typical crusty old bachelor. He was a bit of a character too. As a result of an accident earlier, he had some trouble with his back and wore a surgical corset. He was in almost constant pain and probably to deaden this, he drank steadily throughout the day. As a consequence, he was always slightly befuddled. One evening, just after dinner, when Mum and Dad were clearing away, the phone rang.

          It was the owner’s sister. ‘Good evening, Williams,’ (male servants were always call by their surnames), she said. ‘Is my brother there?’

          ‘He’s in the library, madam. I’ll just get him for you,’ said my father. The telephone, still rare then, was situated on a large sideboard in the hall next to some ornate candlesticks. Dad knocked on the door and went into the library. ‘Your sister’s on the phone, sir,’ he said.

          Mr Barclay was dozing in the chair, as he often was, a newspaper spread over his chest, a glass of whisky on the side table. ‘Be right there, Williams.’

          Some moments later, in the kitchen where they were washing up, Mum and Dad became aware of the silence. ‘I don’t think he’s been on the phone yet,’ Mum commented.

          Dad wiped his hands on a nearby towel. ‘I’ll go and see.’

          The receiver was still lying off its hook on the sideboard and first checking that Mr Barclay’s sister was still holding on, he knocked on the door of the library. This time, at Dad’s insistence and with some help, Mr Barclay rose and went into the hall. There, in the subdued lighting, he picked up one of the candlesticks, mistaking it for the telephone. ‘Hello, hello?’ Unable to get any response, he looked at it and began shaking it. ‘Damned telephones!’

          Dad gently took the candlestick from him and replaced it with the telephone receiver. In the kitchen, he collapsed into laughter and it took some moments for Mum to be able to understand what had happened.

          I remember Mr Barclay as a kindly man who seemed to have a soft spot for me. I suppose now his conduct would be viewed as suspicious though it was all very innocent. Periodically, he’d call me into the library. He’d sit beside me on the piano stool and teach me the basic rudiments of playing the piano. It was at his insistence that I learned to play and I was allowed to practice, when he wasn’t around of course, on the grand piano in the library until we obtained a second-hand piano of our own, which somewhat surprisingly, Mum managed to play by ear.

          Or he’d talk to me about books. He loved his library, spending hours in there. Amazingly, he didn’t mind me borrowing any of his books. By this time, I was a prodigious reader, reading anything I could get my hands on, which wasn’t much because books were scarce during and just after the war. I was thrilled when Mr Barclay presented me with a book written and illustrated by a friend of his who wrote under the pseudonym of ‘BB’. It was about the adventures of the last gnomes in England, the ‘Little Grey Men’ of the title. This was followed a year or so later with the sequel, ‘Down The Bright Stream,’ which he inscribed ‘To Anne from E D Barclay, March 5th, 1949.’ I loved those books, losing count of the times I read them. They’re still on my bookshelves now, dog-eared but much treasured. I was to learn, 60 years later, that BB’s real name was Denys Watkins-Pitchford, MBE (1905-1990).