Tuesday, 17 November 2015

Coronation Year 1953

My life has undergone many changes but by far the most significant came when I was 13 and we moved back to Horwich. Mum had been born and brought up there and still had lots of family and friends. Before moving into domestic service, Mum had worked as a towel weaver so she went back there part-time. Within a few weeks, she was persuaded to organise to celebrate the upcoming Coronation of Elizabeth II. She and some friends got together to draw up a programme and the hard work began, planning, deciding who was to do what, what kind of costumes were going to be worn, being involved in the actual sewing of them.
              As for the concert itself, who could forget tall, ungainly Mona, dressed as a ballet dancer, singing, ‘Nobody Loves A Fairy When She’s Forty,’ or Mum and a busty woman called Kathleen singing ‘We Are The Bold Gendarmes,’ or Mum later doing her standard impersonation of Carmen Miranda. Even I sang, in the chorus, dressed as a toy soldier while a tackler from the mill sang, ‘Goodbye,’ about a young man joining the Foreign Legion.
              After the concert, my mother seemed different. It must have been a week or two later that she told me that she was going to have a baby. Surely, at 42, she was too old to have a baby? Suppose she died like I’d heard some women did.
              Our flat had only two bedrooms and was on the first floor so Mum and Dad began to look at the possibility of getting a larger house. After asking around her friends in the mill, she heard of a couple who had no children but had a three-bedroomed house. After the pokiness of our flat, the house seemed enormous and very tempting but there was a big drawback. The rent was 42/- a week (about £2.10p) which was almost double that of the flat and as Mum would have to give up work, they didn’t know if they could afford it. Yet now, it seems a paltry sum but back then, wages were much lower.
              Eventually they decided it would be worth it and early in 1953, we moved. It proved to be one of the coldest houses we’d ever lived in, simply because of its size. The only really warm room was the kitchen which had a large range, called a bungalow range. We lived in the kitchen and kept the front room for special occasions like Christmas.
              The bathroom was so cold that we only took a bath once a week on Sunday, when Dad took a paraffin heater up there. In the mornings, with your breath misting in front of you, you had just a quick ‘cat-lick’ and got dressed as quickly as possible. At least we had a bathroom and didn’t have to resort to using a tin bath in front of the fire as so many people still did.
              The bedrooms were almost as bad for although there was a small fireplace in each of the two big bedrooms, we could not afford the coal for them, except when anyone was ill, when Dad carried hot coals carefully on a shovel. We had no fitted wardrobes either, just big old-fashioned wardrobes bought second-hand. There was a rug by the side of the bed on bare floorboards to begin with, later on linoleum. Downstairs, we had new-fangled asphalt tiles which we kept polished, with a large square carpet rug in the middle.
              Moving to a new area meant making new friends, something I’d never found easy. Someone Mum knew from the mill had a foster daughter the same age as me who knew hardly anyone in Horwich and the two of us were introduced. She was small and pretty with well-endowed breasts. I still had none to speak of.
              Ada and her foster family lived in a terraced house. The rear of the houses had small gardens rather than back yards and these, together with the alley in between, made a marvellous play area. With the selfishness of the very young and oblivious to the fact that my poor mother suffered from sickness all the way through her pregnancy, I spent almost all my time there in the spring and summer of 1953.
Harry on the right
              Ada had a boyfriend Brian, and I was thrown together with Brian’s best friend, Harry. Brian and Ada kept telling me he fancied me, although I privately thought he was more interested in playing football than in wanting to go out with me. Still, having turned 14 in the February, I went along with the idea and agreed to go out with him as a foursome to the pictures, having asked permission of my parents, as one had to then. There on the back row of the cinema, I received a tentative kiss from my very first boyfriend.
              That must have been about May 1953 when preparations for the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II were at fever pitch. There was a tremendous feeling of excitement in the country that year, despite the fact that the so-regal Queen Mary, the Queen’s grandmother, had died only a couple of months before. We were all fierce royalists at that time and followed the Royal Family’s doing avidly. There was so much about them in the papers, much like the celebrities are these days, showing informal glimpses of the Queen and Duke of Edinburgh, with a young Prince Charles and Princess Anne.
              The Coronation took place on 2nd June 1953 and it was televised for the first time which meant that we could actually see it happening rather than watching it on the Pathé Newsreel at the cinema a week or so later. Those who could asked friends, relatives and neighbours round to watch it. Mum’s sister, Mary, had obtained a set for the occasion, probably rented from Radio Rentals, and we went to watch it at their house. It seems laughable now that a dozen or so people clustered round a tall wooden box housing a 9” television screen. The pictures were fuzzy, the commentary hackneyed but the sheer excitement of the occasion outweighed such minor drawbacks. Everyone ‘oohed’ and ‘aahed’ and toasted the young queen in bottled pale ale and ham sandwiches.
              At night I was to attend a Coronation party with Harry, Ada and Brian. Mum had made me a white dress for my confirmation at earlier that year and she had dyed it yellow for the ‘do’ which was to be held in a private function room at a local pub. The dress had a simple fitted bodice to show off what little bust I had and a full flared skirt. The black bow at the collar and a black belt at the waist made me feel very grown-up. I was so dizzy with the excitement of the whole day that I don’t recall much of the party. I do remember doing a novelty dance with Harry where I had to wear his new brown sports jacket and clomp around the dance floor in his shoes. I don’t think he took much notice of me other than that.
              In the July Wakes Weeks when the mills and factories closed, I went away for a week’s holiday with Ada and her foster family to Blackpool. I hadn’t really wanted to leave Mum, who was by then was in a constant state of discomfort but, as she said, the baby wasn’t due for a week or two. I’d never been away from my parents before and it was a strange experience for me. Brian and Harry came over to spend a day with us but Harry seemed a bit half-hearted about it and didn’t want to kiss me. I sensed rather than was told that our brief romance was at an end.
              Within a few weeks of the holiday in Blackpool,  two events occurred which marked the end of my childhood. The first was starting my periods. At fourteen and a half, I was one of the last girls in our class at school to have had a period. Although I’d been well prepared for it by Mum, it was still a shock. Money was so tight then that both Mum and I used to cut up old towels which were attached with safety pins to our knickers. There was nearly always a bucket of stained towels soaking in cold water and salt in the scullery which were later washed and used again. It wasn’t until I was working that we could afford proper sanitary towels.
              The second event was the birth of my brother, Mark. Mum was two weeks overdue and had to go into hospital to be induced. At that time, only fathers were allowed to visit the new mums and I didn’t see my new brother until Dad and I went to the hospital to pick Mum up after his birth. In the taxi back, I sat with him in my arms, looking down at his little face, scarcely able to believe it. Circumstances meant that I had to take my duties as big sister seriously over the next month. (To be continued.)

Wednesday, 7 October 2015

Navy Blue Knickers, Gym Slips and School Dinners

Farnworth Grammar School

It’s been a while since I posted a memoir-based blog (apart from last month’s ‘Stranded in New York City’), the last one being ‘Four Schools in One Term’ so I thought it was about time I continued the story with my time at Farnworth Grammar School.
The school itself was situated on the main road between Bolton and Farnworth town centres. A large imposing red brick building, probably mid to late Victorian, it was set back slightly from the main road and bordered by rather grand iron railings. The space between was occupied by netball courts. I soon discovered that these particular courts were the bane of the girls’ lives, being the only ones immediately adjacent to the school. The reason we hated the front netball courts was because we had to play in skimpy pale blue tunics with splits up both sides, revealing navy blue knickers. To our chagrin, men and boys used to stand and watch us from the roadside, peering through the railings, obviously enthralled by the sight of unfettered pubescent bouncing breasts (not mine.) not to mention the occasional glimpse of navy blue as we jumped up to basket a ball.
              In January 1951, it was time to return to school, this time wearing the navy blue uniform of Farnworth Grammar School. Those were the days of the box-pleat gym slip, in this case worn with a green braided sash, white blouse and navy and green striped tie. The blazers were navy edged with green, while the hats were navy blue velour with a green band and the school badge. The hats were anathema to everyone as they came down over our eyes. The only way we could make them wearable was to place a tuck in the back.
              I used to behave decorously within a mile or two of the school in case of being seen by prefects. Like everyone else, once away from its confines, I threw caution and the hated hat to the wind, plucking it off my head and squeezing it into my satchel. One day this backfired on me because I was seen by a prefect who didn’t normally go by that route. I had to stay in a couple of nights to write out a few hundred lines, ‘I must wear my hat at all times, I must wear my hat …, I must …’ It didn’t stop me, or anyone else, I still continued to take my hat off whenever I could.
              The rules also stipulated that girls had to wear short white ankle socks, summer or winter, or thick black stockings, attached to a liberty bodice with rubber suspenders. Since we neither liked liberty bodices nor black stockings, very few of us would do that and consequently suffered badly from chapped legs and chilblains. The boys had to wear short trousers until they were about 14 or 15. Some of them looked absolutely ridiculous. I remember one dark-haired, dark-browed boy called Bill, who must have been shaving by the time he was 13, still being forced to wear short trousers.
              Discipline was strict at the school. There were the usual, ‘arms folded’ or ‘hands on heads’ routines and although we didn’t have to stand up and recite our times tables, we were expected to learn them by rote. For the girls, discipline was enforced by the Senior Mistress, Miss Westwood. She had iron grey hair, steel-rimmed spectacles and wore severe blouses and skirts beneath her academic robe. Every now and then, she would descend on a classroom when the bell rang at the end of a lesson, keep the girls behind and do a spot check of nails, teeth, hair, etc. If we ever gave a hint that we were in a hurry, she would give us a lecture about being ladylike. She did not approve of us showing our legs above those neat white socks and, I believe, would have enforced the rule about black stockings if she could.
That's me, second row third girl from the right
              Being a Victorian building, the school was based on a large assembly hall, with classrooms around the outside on two levels, and some portable classrooms. I was a thin sickly child, always catching cold. One of the worst things was the constant changing of classrooms, particularly from the main building to the annexes especially during the winter. Invariably when we got to the next classroom, one of the masters or mistresses would have opened the windows ‘to get air into our lungs and stimulate our brains’ and the room would be icy cold. One of my most lingering memories throughout my school days was of being cold. That, and milk so cold in winter, it had shards of ice in it, so warm in summer that it had gone off.
              The school worked on the system of having a form master or mistress but with other teachers for different subjects. They all wore academic robes too. Some of them were real characters. One, Mr Taylor, who took us for English one year, was tall, beetle-browed, heavy set, deeply spoken, in all a bit of a mystery figure, whom we called Brutus. Miss Heather taught us history. Everyone liked her including, on one occasion, the window cleaner. Once, as we were all piling into the classroom for a lesson with her, she was already there, half-sitting, half-leaning on the desk. As the window cleaner set his ladder against the window and saw her, he let out a piercing wolf whistle which we all heard. She went a startling shade of red.
              Friendships were still a problem. Boys simply ignored me but the girls had formed themselves into groups. It wasn’t that they were deliberately cruel or set out to tease me, it was just that I was, as they say in Lancashire, ‘a bit slow on the uptake.’ Their quick wit and smart replies confounded me.
              Farnworth Grammar School broadened my education in more ways than one. Being very unworldly, never having had any close friends, I knew almost nothing about life. Mum had, almost hesitatingly, told me about menstruation, because she hadn’t wanted me to find out the hard way as she’d done. She was nearly 17 before she’d had her first period and thought she had injured herself in some way. The girls at school talked about all sorts of things besides periods. Rather than risk their ridicule of my ignorance, I kept my mouth shut and gradually, by listening, I was able to piece together nuggets of information, the rest I filled in by guesswork. It’s a wonder I haven’t ended up with all sorts of hang-ups because, listening to their stories, I was horrified. I remember thinking, with some embarrassment, that my parents couldn’t possibly do things like that, not any more, for surely they were too old.
              Academically, I was with children much brighter than myself who were not given so much to day-dreaming. My school report shows that I started off willingly enough, averaging about mid-way through a class of 30 (except maths where I was always in the bottom three). After 1952, it takes a definite downward slide from which I only occasionally arose. Part of the reason for this was because during my second year, I became very ill with pneumonia brought on by the very damp conditions of the house in Farnworth and I was off school for weeks.
              I can’t recall much about actually being ill, apart from the fact that my bed was brought downstairs, in order for me to be kept warm. I remember staring at the fire for hours, comforted by the dull glow from it being banked up at night. I suppose I must have read books by the score and listened to the radio but it is the fire and the persistent cough that seemed to dominate that time. A major piece of history occurred while I was ill. I was lying in bed in the kitchen-cum-sitting room, listening to the radio, when the broadcast was interrupted by the news that King George VI had died that morning. With little better to do, I followed the royal events as they unfolded, feeling very much a part of it.
              Along with the young queen, my own life was about to change dramatically. Mum and Dad had had their name down for a council place in Horwich, where I’d been born, for some time. Now, because I had been so ill, they stepped up the pressure, with visits to the Housing Office and pleading letters. Sometime after my illness, word came through that we’d been allocated a two-bedroomed flat in Horwich. Our very own home! It meant that Dad could still carry on with his bus driving, while Mum would try and get a job in Horwich, perhaps back in the mill where she’d once worked as a towel weaver. I was to continue at Farnworth Grammar School, even though it meant a two-bus ride from Farnworth to Bolton then on to Horwich. And that’s what I did for the next two years, in all kinds of weather, all the time wearing those silly ankle socks. I don’t remember schools ever closing because of snow in those days.
              The worst thing about travelling to and from Horwich every day was that I had to go back to school dinners. How I hated them. Thick lumpy gravy which congealed on your plate, mashed potatoes that still had hard lumps in, vegetables boiled so much all the goodness had gone out of them, nameless blobs, more fat and gristle than meat that you didn’t know about till you got them in your mouth, then you didn’t know what to do with them, followed by thick, lumpy and invariably burnt custard or, worse still, milk puddings. The mere thought of them makes me feel sick and they’re all the things I can’t eat even now. As soon as I could persuade Mum, I started taking a packed lunch. This meant that I had to sit apart from the others taking school dinners, isolating me even further. I didn’t care. Anything was better than the nameless horrors being presented under the guise of school dinners!

Thursday, 10 September 2015

Stranded in New York City

Have you ever been stuck in some way that you feel you can’t escape from, whether it’s a situation, a relationship, a job, or just circumstances? In Rhoda Baxter’s new novel ‘Please Release Me’ myBook.to/PleaseReleaseMe, the three leading characters are all stuck in a difficult situation from which there seems to escape. She’s asked me to blog my own experiences of being stuck and I’m happy to do that since it fits in with my memoir-themed blog.

The best example I can think of is when I was stranded in New York City in the early 1960s. At that time, I was working as a mother’s helper in Princeton, New Jersey in the United States and, on one of my days off, went to New York to meet a friend. At the last moment, another English girl working in Princeton, decided to come with me to meet a friend of her own. I didn’t mind as Linda and I were good friends anyway.
              All went well until the time came to meet her as arranged at Port Authority Bus Terminal ten minutes before the last bus was due to leave for Princeton. The seconds ticked away, but she didn’t arrive. Knowing I couldn’t leave her stranded in New York alone, I watched the Princeton bus depart. Five minutes later, she arrived, flushed and breathless. ‘I’m sorry I’m late, Anne. Would you believe, the cabbie lost his way? Still, we can catch a later bus, can’t we?’
              ‘Sorry, Linda, no bus now until morning.’
              She was appalled. What on earth are we going to do?’
              ‘I was just wondering that myself.’
              ‘Why don’t we try the waiting room? Perhaps we can kip down there,’ she suggested. As we walked towards the waiting room, we noticed that with the last of the buses, the character of the bus station had changed. Gone was the bustling urgency of people with a destination, instead there was the apathy of people with nowhere to go, ambling individuals, obviously trying to weigh up what two attractive young women were doing on their own in a bus station that had all but closed for the night.
              The waiting room, never a salubrious place, had been taken over by the drunks and down-and-outs, stretched here and there on the uncomfortable benches. Linda and I looked at each other and with one accord, walked out again. ‘So much for that idea,’ she sighed. ‘What do we do now?’
              ‘How much money do you have?’ I asked.
              ‘A little change and my pay cheque. Coming at the last minute, I didn’t have time to cash it.’
              ‘And I only have a few dollars. Why don’t we try the YWCA?’ I’d stayed at the YWCA hostel several times before.
              I phoned the night clerk at the YWCA hostel, explaining that we were two British girls stranded in New York who needed somewhere to stay. ‘Sure, no problem,’ he said. ‘Come on over, you can have a room.’ The amount he quoted was in excess of the cash we had, plus we’d need money for the cab fare to the hostel. I explained that we didn’t have that much cash but that Linda did have her pay cheque.
Me in 1962
              ‘Is it on a New York bank?’ he asked.
              I checked with Linda. ‘No, a Princeton bank.’
              ‘Then I can’t help you,’ he said.
              ‘But we’ve nowhere to go!’
              ‘Sorry, lady, no cash, no room.’
              Then I remembered that my employer’s cousin lived in New York, he might be listed in the phone book, perhaps he could help. He was and he could, though he wasn’t pleased to be woken at that time of night by someone he scarcely knew. Finally, he came up with the answer. We were to take a cab to his club, ask for Joe (it really was Joe!), the night clerk at the club, who would give us enough money to get us a room at the YWCA for what remained of the night. While we caught a cab to the club, he would phone Joe and arrange for the money to be available.
              We got a cab, the money and a twin-bedded room at the YWCA and one might think our immediate problems were over. Not so.
              Linda, who’d had a heavy cold, coughed all night so that neither of us got much sleep. The night seemed endless and I was glad when it was time to get up. There was no time even for a coffee, we’d missed the early bus because we’d both dozed off just before dawn. The bus station had an early morning bustle that was in stark contrast to the night before and there was a queue for the bus even before it arrived. Linda wasn’t coughing now but clung to me for support. Of a sudden she turned to me and in a low voice, said, ‘Anne, I do feel ill,’ and collapsed at my feet.
              We’d heard stories about the callousness of New Yorkers but in our case it was different. A young soldier picked the unconscious Linda up and laid her on a bench while other people clustered round, offering suggestions. A cop, drawn to the commotion, came and took charge of the situation, suggesting that I take a cab and get her to hospital. Embarrassed, I explained that we had no money to pay for medical treatment and he told me that there was a charity hospital not far away. He got the cab and the soldier lifted her inside, by which time she had come round, while the cop gave the cabbie instructions.
              I don’t know which hospital we went to, although I remember that it was dim, quiet, drab and there were a lot of nuns around. We’d to wait a long time and the doctor, when he came, was tired and rumpled. Tests and x-rays followed before we were told that Linda had pneumonia. He explained that they had no admission facilities for out of town patients and that I should get her back to Princeton as quickly as possible.
              Both exhausted from lack of sleep and the emotion-packed events, the journey home was a nightmare. We had to take yet another cab to Port Authority, then wait for the next bus, while all the time Linda was on the point of slipping back into unconsciousness. On the bus, the passengers were kindness itself and the bus driver uncomplaining when he had to pull over a couple of times to enable Linda to clamber out into the fresh air which revived her enough to continue the journey.
Linda’s employer whisked her to the hospital, then to some friends to recuperate, and from thence shipped her back to the UK while I ended up repaying all the money we’d had to borrow.

‘Please Release Me’ sounds a fascinating book and I’m looking forward to reading it. Here’s a taster of what it’s about.

What if you could only watch as your bright future slipped away from you?
Sally Cummings has had it tougher than most but, if nothing else, it’s taught her to grab opportunity with both hands. And, when she stands looking into the eyes of her new husband Peter on her perfect wedding day, it seems her life is finally on the up.
That is until the car crash that puts her in a coma and throws her entire future into question.
In the following months, a small part of Sally’s consciousness begins to return, allowing her to listen in on the world around her – although she has no way to communicate.
But Sally was never going to let a little thing like a coma get in the way of her happily ever after …..

Here’s the link again if you’re interested. myBook.to/PleaseReleaseMe