Tuesday, 20 December 2016

Behind The Green Baize Door

My handsome Dad, wearing his butler's uniform, ca 1969
I’ve mentioned before that I spent most of my childhood living in other people’s houses while my parents worked in domestic service. It occurred to me that some people might find some of our adventures interesting, so here goes.
My Mum had left school at 14 and, being a Lancashire lass, had gone to work as a towel weaver in a cotton mill, a job she’d never really taken to. One of the older weavers said to her ‘You want to get yourself a job in service and learn to be a cook.’ So that’s what she did and, when she met Dad in 1936, she was working as a housekeeper for the then editor of the Bolton Evening News. They were married a year later, when it was so foggy, even the vicar was late.
In the late 1930s with the threat of war with Germany looming, Dad had joined the Army as a reservist because it meant an extra £15 a year. Because of this, he was one of the first to be called up.
Soon after that, Mum and I left Horwich for her to go back into domestic service and we spent the rest of the war years in Blackpool, where Mum was working as a live-in housekeeper. I was a shy, timid child and there were two noisy lively children there who made my life a misery, like the time they emptied a chamber pot out of the bedroom window and saying it was me.
After Dad was demobbed in 1946, we moved to Ivybridge, Devon, where my parents had taken a job, Mum as cook-housekeeper, Dad as chauffeur-gardener, even though he knew almost nothing about gardening. You could say he learned on the job. The house was large and rambling and because of the danger of flooding from the river that ran through the town, only the upper floors could be used. I nearly came to a watery end in the river when I fell down the embankment. Fortunately, I landed on a ledge!
In 1947, we moved to Birmingham and it’s here that my memories become more vivid because we stayed for three years and I was very happy there. Again, it was a large house with a large garden. To get to the servants’ quarters, you had to go through a green baize door, hence the title. The house was owned by a middle-aged bachelor, Mr Barclay, and I remember him as a pink and portly gentleman with thinning grey hair who spoke rather ponderously. Mum always said, with some affection, that he was a typical crusty old bachelor.
              Although we seemed to eat well in Birmingham, severe rationing was still in force. Mr Barclay was in the habit of ringing up at the last minute, having invited someone round to dinner and she’d be left to find something for dinner out of what was often lean pickings. Occasionally, there were pheasants or grouse from a shoot or chickens and eggs from a farmer friend, but more often than not, Mr Barclay and his friends would end up with our rations while we ‘made do.’ In the end, the constant strain began to tell on Mum and they decided to leave.
This time we were to move back to Bolton, where Dad had been brought up. We were to stay, for the time being with Dad’s Auntie Leah, his mother’s youngest sister, who had inherited the family home after my great-grandfather died in 1947. Moving to a traditional two-up, two-down terraced house was a bit of a shock after the spacious houses with bathrooms and central heating, we’d lived in. Now we had to get used to washing at a kitchen sink and having to use an outside toilet.
In a previous blog, Four Schools in One Term, I spoke about winning a place at a Bolton grammar school but before I could take up the offer, we had moved to Rotherham, where my parents were taking jobs in their usual capacity for a solicitor and my scholarship was transferred to Rotherham Girls’ Grammar School. Yet within only a few weeks of moving to Rotherham, we were on the move again, to Chesterfield this time, my scholarship being transferred to Chesterfield Grammar School.
After a very short stay there, I learned we were off again. This time, we were going to stay with my Dad’s brother, who lived on the outskirts of Manchester, and his family for a few weeks until something could be sorted out. I wasn’t happy about this; I didn’t get on with my cousin Patricia. It meant having to go to Levenshulme High School with her.
Mum and Dad had decided they’d had enough of domestic service for a while and were looking to put down roots in either Bolton or Horwich by getting ordinary jobs. Eventually, we found a house to rent on the outskirts of Bolton and my scholarship was transferred to Farnworth Grammar School where I stayed for the rest of my school life.
That should have been the end of my parents’ involvement in domestic service; it certainly was for me. Not so my parents. In about 1967, Mum had been working for some time as a cook for the directors’ of the large packaging group based at their headquarters in Bolton while Dad was chauffeuring directors, visitors etc to and from Bolton station. Then one of the partners of the company asked them would they consider working at his Bedfordshire country home. The temptation was too great and sometime that year, they moved there. Fortunately, for most of the year, that just mean working at the weekends. That’s not to say it wasn’t hard as the owner entertained lavishly, with guests staying. Dad, by this time had graduated to chauffeur/butler, and found he’d got a natural flair for it.
Mum, doing what she did best, cooking!
In 1971, Mum decided to retire while Dad carried on for a while longer. Big mistake! Mum was bored. Within only a few months, she and Dad went after a number of jobs she’d seen advertised in ‘The Lady’ magazine, a pastime she was addicted to.
Once they were offered a job at the country house of the late MP John Stonehouse by his then wife. They turned it down because they felt it would be too much entertaining for them. Shortly afterwards, apparently beset by money troubles, he faked his own death by leaving a pile of clothes on a beach. He turned up years later in Australia, living with his secretary, whom he later married. He was eventually sent to prison for fraud and died in 1988.
              Mum and Dad also turned down an offer of a job from Victor Lownes, the European head of the Playboy organisation, at his country house, Stocks, in Hertfordshire, because he wanted to keep the Victorian kitchen exactly the way it was.
              Remember Asil Nadir, the disgraced business man who fled to Northern Cyprus, returning to the UK some years ago, where he’s now serving a prison sentence? For a short time, they worked for him when he had a house on The Bishop’s Avenue, Hampstead, known as Millionaire’s Row. They had a few adventures while they were there, like having to hustle his mistress out of the back door when his ex-wife came to call with their son. Or the time Dad nearly caught out some burglars by finding a bedroom window open and a ladder propped against the wall outside. Mum and Dad left only because he’d promised to employ them at his country house, which never materialised.
From there, they went to work for an elderly couple, the Puxleys, in a large house, designed
Langley End, King's Langley, Herts
by the famous architect, Edward Lutyens, in Hertfordshire. It was only after they’d been there a couple of weeks that they discovered that the Puxleys were both suffering from cancer. Feeling sorry for the couple in their isolation, for they had no children, my parents agreed to stay on. Fortunately, the Puxleys were rich enough to have nursing staff so all Mum had to do was a little light cooking and Dad occasional chauffeuring. Not a bad thing really as Mum and Dad were getting older themselves. Mrs Puxley died first followed shortly after by Mr Puxley. Mum and Dad were asked to stay on for a while longer to help Mr Puxley’s brother sort out the estate and this they agreed to do. One night when Dad got up to go to the toilet, he quite plainly heard Mr Puxley’s voice calling out ‘Williams?’ in the imperious tone the old man used. Needless to say, he scuttled back to bed pretty sharpish.
And so their long and interesting career in domestic service finally came to an end. Fortunately, because their accommodation had been tied to the estate, they were allocated council accommodation. Even then, Mum continued to work as a cook for the Sue Ryder organisation in one of their hospices while Dad got a job as a personnel driver for a nearby airfield. As by this time, they were well into their sixties you might have thought that would be the end of it. No, it wasn’t. When they finally moved back to Horwich in 1980, Mum got a job as the manageress of a charity shop in Bolton with Dad helping out in the shop. When that came to an end, she spent her time fund-raising for local charities or entering cookery competitions. Dad died in 1999 aged 87 and even though Mum was 90 in 2001, she bravely moved to be near us and finally died aged 97 in 2008. 
They just don’t make them like that any-more!

Tuesday, 8 November 2016

Beloved Bad Penny

HMS Ark Royal (later version)

After my first tentative foray into dating with Harry, (see my blog post Coronation year 1953) I didn’t have a boyfriend for ages The boys of my acquaintance didn’t seem to fancy me. Maybe it was because I was so stick thin with under-developed breasts. I was very lonely and spent all my time and pocket money on going to the cinema. It says something of the era too, that I often went alone without any kind of fear whatsoever. I’ve already mentioned about my home town having three cinemas (see my blog post Film Stars, Hair-dos and Reminiscences) so there was plenty of choice.
              Looking back, I must have seen hundreds of films in those years and it was my love of the cinema that gave Mum an idea that might help me make friends. Both Picture Show and Picturegoer ran a pen-pals wanted column. Why didn’t I, she suggested, put a request in myself to see what turned up?
              The response was phenomenal. I received dozens of letters, many of them from young men doing their National Service. I wrote to a number of them initially, but as the months passed, I found myself corresponding more and more with a Northern Irish sailor. His name was Bill Lyttle from Portadown in County Armagh and he was serving on the aircraft carrier, Ark Royal, which gave him a kind of glamour in itself. Who hadn’t heard of the Ark Royal? His letters were amusing, interesting, often accompanied by postcards from far-flung places he called at on voyage
              By the time we arranged to meet on his next leave, I was already more than half in love with him. He was to stay with us for part of his leave in order for us to get to know each other. Not knowing what to expect aroused feelings of both trepidation and anticipation but I needn’t have feared. We liked each other immediately. Perhaps as importantly, Mum and Dad liked him too. And little brother Mark followed him round like a puppy! He was tall, with broad shoulders and a slim waist which he tended to exaggerate with short zip-up jackets. His sailor swagger, extrovert manner and strange accent confused the neighbours and nearly everyone thought he was American. He talked excitably and volubly about his many adventures and I was totally smitten. Yet he frightened me a little too. He was so sophisticated, so mature, for his then 23 years that I, a naive sheltered 17-year-old, almost found him too much.
              That first visit lasted only a few days as he’d promised to visit his folks as well. After his return to the Ark Royal, he wrote to me every day and it was obvious from the tone of the letters that he felt as I did. When he came for his next long leave, the whole of which we were to spend together, we got engaged. I think I must have been 18 by then and we went to Prestons of Bolton (a famous jewellers in Bolton now sadly closed down) for an engagement ring, a two-stone small diamond set in some silvery metal. I learned later that it is traditionally bad luck to choose a ring with an even number of stones. Had I known then, I would have scoffed for I was deliriously happy.
              He was stationed at Devonport by this time and able to get up for a long weekend about once a month so I was seeing more of him. Then, surprisingly quickly, things started to go wrong between us. At the beginning, I’d been over-awed by his glamorous personality. After a silly argument about him wanting to take some fish and chips on the bus, which I didn’t approve of (still don’t), I decided I’d had enough of all the arguing and gave him his ring back.
              ‘We’re not through yet, you and I,’ he yelled as he stormed out. ‘I’ll keep turning up in your life like a bad penny.’
              A couple of years after I’d broken our engagement off, he telephoned. ‘Do you know who this is?’ I knew instantly, of course, his accent was unmistakable. Much had happened to me in the intervening period, I was older and wiser now, I thought. I was not, however, prepared for the excited flutter I felt as we spoke. ‘I’ve got some leave coming up,’ he explained. ‘Could I come and visit you all for a few days?’
HMS Ark Royal (1957) the ship Bill was on
              I hesitated. ‘Just as friends,’ he was quick to point out. ‘Besides, I’m married now.’
              Mum and Dad agreed that there didn’t seem any harm to the proposal and so he came. That first visit passed as he’d said it would, just as friends, although we knew we were still attracted to each other. He told us all that the girl he had married, Sally, was from his home town and he’d known her since they were children. I guessed he wasn’t happy in the marriage. Why else would he want to come and visit us?
              We soon realised we were still in love but marriage was out of the question. Bill was a Catholic and there could be no divorce from Sally. Eventually the strain became too much for me and we broke up again. ‘You can’t do this to me again,’ he begged but I knew I had to be strong. There was no question of us living together. Couples simply did not do that in the early 1960s.
              It wasn’t to be the end even then. In 1963, when I returned from the United States, he telephoned once again. ‘Is Ron Williams there?’ he asked. You don’t know someone for nearly 7 years and not know their voice yet I pretended not to. ‘Just a moment, I’ll get him for you.’ My heart was thundering so much I could barely speak so perhaps he didn’t realise it was me. I called Dad and shakily passed the phone to him.
              Minutes later, Dad was back in the kitchen. ‘Bill is passing through and wants to know if he can call and see us,’ he said. ‘What do you think?’
              Mum and I looked at each other and I shook my head reluctantly. I was pregnant and having an illegitimate child was something to be ashamed of then. Dad went back to the phone and told Bill that it was probably better if he didn’t come, although not the reason why. Our hearts were heavy with sadness that night for all the family were fond of him.
              There was to be a sequel some years later. I’d often thought of him in the intervening years, especially with the troubles in Northern Ireland, for Bill had been brought up a Catholic in the largely Protestant town of Portadown. I was by that time, separated from my husband and, on a whim, I decided to try and find out what had happened to him. I placed an advert in the Portadown newspaper asking if anyone had any news of him. To my surprise, his sister wrote to me, via a box number, understandably very cautious about why I wanted to know. I wrote back frankly saying that I still thought about him and genuinely wanted to know how he was.
              The reply, written this time by Bill’s mother, devastated me. He’d left the Navy a year or two previously and while cleaning out some boilers he’d been overcome by noxious fumes, the effects of which had killed him. She reported that he’d left a wife, whether this was Sally I don’t know, and daughter.
              I cried for a long, long time, unable to believe that Bill was dead. He’d been so full of life, so vigorous, when I knew him that it seemed impossible that he should be no more. Somehow, I’d always believed that he would turn up again in my life, like he’d always promised. Now it was too late.
              Yet, in writing this, I have realised that he lives on as a very treasured memory of my first love.

Sunday, 2 October 2016

Autumn Ramblings - and a rant!

September was a frustrating month. For it, I’ve was without internet access and, to be honest, I felt like I’d lost an arm. I should point out here that although I have a smart phone, I don’t use it for Facebook or Twitter – if I’m honest, it’s because they would be too much of a distraction! Nor do I bank online.

Indulge me for a short time while I tell you the woeful story. Sometimes my connection was on, sometimes it was off – more often off than on. Numerous phone calls to my service provider, were frustrating, to say the least. Eventually, they arranged for an engineer to call – but it was a week and a half away. ‘But I can’t do without the internet for a week and a half!’ I squeaked. I had to, of course. Eventually, when the engineer came, he’d fixed the problem which had been, he said, because of routine maintenance work in the area.

For a day and a half, I had an internet connection. Then – nothing again. Knowing that the maintenance work wasn’t due to finish until 19th September, I deliberately didn’t phone my service provider again until Tuesday 20th September. I was assured that the person I spoke to would be personally monitoring matters for the next ten days to ensure that I had the best possible broadband service. Oh, and please, not to ring again until the ten days had elapsed. The call ended up with her saying ‘Have a good day’ to which I replied ‘I would do if I had an internet connection.’ Talk about being fobbed off!

On Saturday, 24th September, my daughter and son-in-law visited, bringing with them their no-longer needed router which had been from the same internet service provider which my lovely s-i-l connected. Oh wonders! I had an internet connection – and I still have it!

Why, oh, why wasn’t I asked how old my original router was? (It was ancient) Surely that should have been an obvious starting point.
Colchicum - Autumn Crocus

In the midst of all this kerfuffle, I had a phone call claiming to be someone from my internet service provider who said they could fix the problem over the phone. As they knew my name, address and account number, I had no reason to doubt them. I allowed them remote access to my computer and they did various whiz-bang thingies that looked pretty alarming. When they said they were going to give me £200 compensation providing I gave them my bank details, alarm bells started ringing. When I refused, the line went dead. The only consolation was that I’d wasted about 45 minutes of their time. I immediately switched my computer off and rang my pet computer chappie who came up within the hour to delete a couple of programs that had been installed. So no damage done. But just goes to show how plausible it all sounded. My heart goes out to those who have fallen for these scams because now I realise how easy it is to fall for the scam.

Two areas of concern remain, how did they know my account details and how did they know I was having problems? Is this a major breach of security? I have written a strong letter of complaint to my internet service provider and mentioned both areas of concern.

On a more positive note, I did manage to write a couple of articles, prepare an author talk for an event on 19th September, sort all my tax records out and started making notes about book number three.

All this has left me pondering though. Just how much of our lives are dependent on the internet, unknown 30 years ago? Today, most young people seem to live their lives through their smart phones. You see them at bus stops, restaurants and pubs, texting or scrolling through social media. What’s going to happen in 20-30 years’ time? Will any one actually be speaking to each other by then? Or will smart phones be a thing of the past? I doubt I shall be around in 30 years’ time to find out!