Wednesday, 19 October 2011

Boundaries of my world - my past times in the 1950s

In this blog I reflect on my childhood growing up in a suburb not far from London.

The boundaries of my world as a child radiated out from our house. It was a semi-detached on a busy road with a front garden and drive and a back garden with a small vegetable patch, a shed, a lawn and paved area. On the paved area were the coal and coke bunkers, coal for the fire and coke for the boiler. I hated the job of going out in winter with the coal scuttle to shovel the coal for the fire. Apart from the hall and kitchen, there were two rooms downstairs, a room ‘for best’ at the front that we only went into at Christmas, and a back room where we ate, sat in front of the fire, and watched TV. Upstairs there were two main bedrooms, a box room and bathroom. I shared a room with my brother until I was 8.

Across the road from our house was the ‘rec’ or recreation ground – I didn’t know 'rec' was short for 'recreation' until now and in my mind I always thought of it as the ‘wreck’. Here there were expanses of green fields and swings for kids to play on. I remember how excited we were when they installed swing boats; I loved them and spent many hours swinging with my friends. They were great because you faced each other and could therefore swing and talk. Most of my play took place ‘over the rec’, and in summer I would go there after tea and could stay out as long as I came home ‘when the street lights come on’. We also played games in the street, especially in winter so we could get indoors quickly if it rained or snowed, we played marbles, conkers, hop scotch and skipping games. We therefore created a sort of country in the town.

We used to go to the ‘rec’ to play rounders and tennis and other ball games. When it stayed light until late on summer evenings my parents would join us with tennis rackets and balls and we would compete to see how high we could make the balls go – I was useless at all ball games and felt very inferior. In contrast, my mother loved ball games and also played badminton once a week. Also at the top of our road, quite a steep walk, was the Uxbridge Road, across this main road was the tennis courts and in the summer holidays, once I went to secondary school, I would go there with my friends and attempt to play tennis, but I was always pretty rubbish with a bat and ball. On a Sunday in summer my dad took us swimming sometimes, but my mum would never swim, she said she was ‘too fat’ to be seen in a swimsuit. She sat by the pool guarding the picnic, which was inevitably elaborate and better than anyone else’s - providing lovely food was my Mum's speciality.

We also played games in the back garden, the fifties were a time of crazies – I remember having to have a hula-hoop and a yo-yo. Skipping was also popular and my mum was really good at this. We also spent hours practising ‘hand stands’ in the garden and bouncing balls, having competitions to see who could bounce the longest. I remember my brother falling and breaking his arm in one of the garden competitions.

My father worked six days a week so Sunday was the ‘family day’ and we would motor into the country and go for walks. I loved it in the winter. My mother would make a flask of homemade soup or we would take a primus stove and heat up baked beans and huddle round the stove and eat soup and beans with crusty bread with thick butter. At home in the winter we played cards and board games on Sunday evening, although my dad would never join in – he hated these games so mum, me and my brother would play. I remember being really annoyed that we could never play games in pairs because dad wouldn’t join in. The games included Monopoly and Cluedo, Ludo and Snakes and Ladders.

As I got older my boundaries extended and I would go off with my friends on our bikes. In Uxbridge – top of the road and then a 20 minute bus ride – there was an open-air swimming pool and I swear we spent almost the entire summer holidays at this pool. I don’t remember having any access to an indoor pool. From the age of 11-12, I would cycle to the pool, we had a cycle path on the main road, and join my friends – my memory is of long, hot, sunny days. We also went swimming at Ruislip (quite a way away), where there was a Lido to swim in during the summer, although my mother didn’t like me to swim there, ‘you might catch polio’. This was a concern as my dad hadn’t let any of us have vaccinations – he thought we might be brain-damaged, so I suppose we were more at risk.

Most of our leisure as children was sorted out between us, adults had very little input. Even going to the cinema didn’t involve adults. Our local cinema was about 3 miles walk or two bus rides away. Saturday morning pictures and the cinema in general were really important. Children’s films were a big pull and considered a treat, especially if we were allowed to have a 6p bag of chips to have on the way home. One of THE highlights of my childhood was being taken to London by my grandfather to see the ‘7 Wonders of the World’ at the first widescreen cinema. It also had surround sound which actually scared me at first. My parents did take us to the cinema as well to see ‘Carry On’ films – we all loved them. One of the biggest disappointments of my childhood was being in hospital when Carry on Constable came out and I didn’t get to see it.

Looking back, I spent very little leisure time with my parents, Dad did a lot with my brother, but not much with me, although one thing I do remember was my father made a model radio-controlled boat and we used to take it to the local pond and sail it. I have since learnt that there were over 1 million self-assembled boats being sailed on ponds in the 1950s in Britain, so as a family we were probably quite typical in our leisure activities with mum, dad and children engaging in very different pastimes, it was only on Sunday would we do something together as a family on the after lunch drive to the country.

Monday, 8 August 2011

Being a grandmotherCharlie and Me in the Woods When Charlie and I go to the woods he is thinking and reflecting in a sensory way as he sees and hears

Charlie and Me in the Woods

At the back of my daughter's house is a wonderful woodland. Last time I was there Charlie and I spent time in the woods everyday. It is a wonderful time for me that has led me to reflect on the adult-child relationship in a very different way.

When Charlie and I go to the woods he is thinking and reflecting in a sensory way as he sees and hears and touches and tastes things in the wood. He is only 15 months but his curiosity, his wonder at the world in the wood is clear to see. He strokes the bark of the trees, looks up at the pattern made by the leaves against the blue sky; he hears a plane and points to the sky and I say, ‘yes, airplane Charlie, airplane’. I imitate the sounds of birds and we stop and listen to the birds answering back. Birds fly across our path, land on the ground in front of us and scratch for worms. Sometimes Charlie spots a bird on the ground and points and toddles over, excited and curious. When he gets too close and the bird flies off he follows the bird with his whole body, not just his eyes, he is fully engrossed.

Suddenly he crouches down and stares intently at the ground. I look too – there is an ant travelling through the wood. Charlie is fascinated and watches the ant on his purposeful journey. He’s learnt that the large fallen down trees that have become benches for us to sit on are likely to have all sorts of mini-beasts and he explores the logs, bending down to examining closely the bark of the tree. He also knows logs can be fun and holds up his hands to me to help him ‘walk the plank’ – he has only just learnt to walk but he’s ready, with support to walk up and down the uneven surface of the tree, lifting his feet to climb over the remains of a knobbly branch. I point things out to him, unusual shapes, a ‘monster’ lurking in the shapes of the trees; we play peek-a-boo from behind the trunks of the larger trees invoking more peels of laughter. He loves games like this. I then pick up a twig and start to drawn patterns and shapes in the dirt. Charlie joins in with his own stick and then takes it further using two sticks, one in each hand, to aid his creation. He is able to imitate and innovate.

Charlie notices when something is not quite right and crouches down to pick up a thin blue plastic ring from the top of a bottle. He looks at it with curiosity and tries it on as a ring slipping it over two fingers and of course it is far too big. After exploring this for a while he wanders off and points out some blue nylon twine hanging from a tree. I pick him up and we reach up to it but it’s too high. Charlie hands me his cap and I jump up and extend my arm and we do it, we hit the twine and it swings back and forth. Charlie delights in this achievement and laughs and laughs. Over and over again I hit the twine with the hat and each time he peals with laughter. Eventually we move on, but it is me rather than Charlie who is fed up with the game, but he soon finds something else to amuse us. He walks over to a small mound where we play the ‘up-down’ game. Charlie holds out his hands to me and together we go ‘up, up, up, up, up’, and when we get to the top we run ‘down, down, down, down, down’. We do this over and over again. Repetition is a feature of all that we do as Charlie explores and experiments.

Later on, after we have strolled around the woods, we come back to the ‘hill’ and Charlie goes ‘up, up, up’ without holding my hand. When he gets to the top he turns with a smile of accomplishment and holds out his hand – he’s not ready yet to do ‘down, down, down’ on his own. I praise him for his accomplishment, but he doesn’t need my praise, he is very pleased with himself. We walk deeper into the woods, the first blackberries are out and I pick one and eat it before offering one to Charlie. He takes it and very cautiously puts it into his mouth, takes it out again and looks at it, then gingerly tastes it again and then decides to eat it. Very soon he is picking blackberries by himself, the juice spilling down his T-shirt. When he goes to the red ones or green ones I gently say, ‘No, Charlie’ not the red or green ones, just the black ones’ and he takes notice and doesn’t pick them.

Charlie is just learning to talk; he can say ‘Mama, Dada, Baba (and I’m sure he says ‘Nana’). He can also say ‘dog, cat and pigeon’. He loves to say ‘pigeon’ and he points to the real pigeons flying through the woods. He can distinguish between pigeons and other ‘birds’. He is a natural scientist, comparing and contrasting, looking for similarities and differences.

Charlie is also a very social being and the woods are an opportunity to mix with the dog walkers. He goes to the woods everyday and he knows them all and their dogs and they know him. When he sees them coming towards him he stands quite still and smiles his infectious smile until they come and greet him and ask him if he’s having fun. Mabel, Charlie’s dog is with us of course, and she loves the other dog walkers too, especially the ones with treats in their pocket for her. The dogs run round in circles, careful to avoid knocking Charlie down, and he isn’t scared at all, he’s used to the dogs and their games. Sometimes one of the walkers starts a game of ‘peek-a-boo’ and Charlie joins in laughing and delighting in the interaction.

As I reflect on our time in the woods, I realise that it is not just Charlie who is full of wonder, who is seeing things fresh and new, it is me too. Charlie is teaching me to slow down and really see the woods. To marvel at the ant, to notice when something is out of place like the blue circle of plastic, to delight in solving the problem of touching the blue twine and making it sway up and down. I laugh along with Charlie at our achievement and my laughter is that of my inner child as I engage with the child in front of me. Charlie can’t talk yet, just a few words, yet we are communicating, we are sharing our delight in nature, in exploration, in stopping to stare, in listening to the sounds of the wood. We are experiencing the world of the woods and I am seeing it through Charlie’s eyes, it is no longer just a place to walk the dog, it is a world of discovery and I find I am like a child again.

Although I am the adult and Charlie the child, the opposite implied in this distinction is dissolving for me. I am learning from Charlie and I hope I am a good teacher for him as he can benefit from my greater ability to name and label and explain what’s happening in the woods; but the lessons I am learning are far more profound. In nurturing Charlie, I nurture myself. I recognize that Charlie and I are on the same life-long journey of discovery; I haven’t ‘arrived’ at maturity, I am still a learner; he is not an incomplete being on a journey towards adulthood, he is a person in his own right with the same curiosity and sense of wonder in the world that I feel now that he has shown me how to re-locate the child that I still carry around inside me. And that for me is one of the wonders of being a grandparent. We are two human beings delighting in the natural world, sharing our joy and learning from each other.

Wednesday, 1 June 2011

Male Dominance and Class

Male dominance

My memories of school are dominated by male teachers. Although I was taught by far more women than men it is the male teachers who stand out. ‘Nobby’ Clark with his penchant for the slipper and humiliation shaped my final two years in primary school. His clear preferences for Suzanne Cohen, the cleverest and prettiest girl in the class. The humiliation heaped on the boys who weren’t good at rugby or sport of any kind. Recently through Friends Reunited I was sent a ‘class’ picture. My old school friend expressed puzzlement that I wasn’t in the picture. In fact there were only 11 children in the picture. These were the ones who had passed the 11+ examination. The examination decided who was worth educating, and would therefore go to Grammar School, and those who were not. I had failed my 11+ so I wasn’t in the picture. Suzanne Cohen was there – she had won a scholarship to a Grant Maintained school – which freed up a grammar school place for someone else I suppose. I later found out that Suzanne got pregnant and married young and never went on to University. I am ashamed at how smug that made me feel.

I had spent months of the year before my 11+ off school. I had contracted Rheumatic Fever and spent 3 months in hospital and then another month convalescing. No one thought it was necessary to give me any lessons. No one sent work home from school. When I returned to school it was in maths that I felt completely lost. Everyone was taught as a class, there was no differentiation; you had to try and keep up. I had missed some vital mathematical moves and struggled. I just didn’t ‘get it’. I can remember crying at home because it was so difficult and dreading school where a wrong answer could lead to the slipper.

I later found out that two of us had scored the same in the 11+ but there was only only one more place at the grammar school. My father later told me that he and Jennifer’s father were called in for an interview with the head teacher so they could decide which of us should have the place. Jennifer’s father was a policeman; my father was a toolmaker. The letter to say I had not been successful noted that it was felt that Jennifer’s background would provide more support in the home than mine.

My father raged on that ignorant class-fuelled prejudice had prevented me from having the place. Fortunately I did not have to attend a ‘sink’ secondary modern school as one of the first, brand-new comprehensives had opened. I remember that John Waterton, who had passed the 11+ opted to go to the ‘comp’. I guess his parents were politically motivated. His father was also a policeman.

This event alerted me to class prejudice. It was not just your ability, it was where you came from that influenced your chances in life. On arriving at the ‘comp’ I found it was divided into three streams. The ‘A’ stream, where you would get ‘a grammar school education’, the ‘B’ stream, also known as the ‘carrot stream’, where they held out the possibility of transferring to the ‘A’ stream if you did well in your exams, and the ‘C’ stream. We knew that was for the 'no-hopers' and the playground divided accordingly.

I came top of 1B1, and was offered the chance to move up to 2A3. I declined. They were all ‘snobs’ up there. I didn’t have any friends in that stream. I liked being ‘top’ of something and didn’t want to be bottom of another class. I was called ‘ungrateful’, ‘silly’, I was ‘throwing away my chances’, but there was no way I could contemplate changing classes. In year 3, I took the 13+ and passed. This was designed for ‘late developers’ and gave them the chance to be moved into the A stream or transfer to the Grammar School. I declined this opportunity as well. I remember the head master telling me that he, ‘washed his hands of me’, that I was a ‘very silly girl’ to pass up the chance of a grammar school education. My friends and social standing was far more important to me than that.

In year 4, at age 15, I decided I wanted to leave school. I had been working as a Saturday girl in a local hairdressing salon since I was 12 and was determined to be a hairdresser. I was marched into the careers office. She asked me if I had ever thought of becoming a teacher. I said not. A nurse? No. A secretary? No. How about working in a bank? No. ‘Oh well’, she said, ‘you might as well be a hairdresser’. So at 15 I left school with no qualifications and began my working life.

Monday, 30 May 2011

School memories: humiliation


My school experience is dominated by memories of humiliation. I went to a primary school in a suburb of London. It was white (apart from William Azapardi and Falguni Basu) with a mixed working, middle and professional class intake. Outstanding memories of my time there focus on injustice and humiliation. The teacher I had in the final two years – ‘Nobby’ Clark – was a slipper-wielding Welshman. We sat in rows facing the front. The position we had was determined by the maths test we sat each week – I was always somewhere in the middle.

I remember having the slipper twice. The first time was because in answer to a maths question, I said ‘times’ instead of ‘multiplication’. I was brought to the front of the class, made to bend over the desk and smacked resoundingly on my bottom. I don’t remember if it hurt, the humiliation was far too painful. The second time was in 1959; it had been one of those rare, hot summers. My family and I had been to North Wales on a caravan holiday and spent the week playing on the beach and swimming in the sea. First week back to school we had to write a story, ‘My Holiday’. I wrote about how we played in the sun. My brother, I said, had a back ‘the colour of mahogany’. I don’t think I really knew what mahogany was, but it was how my mother described it, ‘Oh David, your back is the colour of mahogany’. Mr. Clark always chose extracts from particularly good stories to read out to the class. I remember the pride I felt when he picked up my book and began to read from it, ‘my brother’s back turned the colour of mahogany’. Feelings of pride soon turned to horror. Mr. Clark sent John Waterton down to the infants to get my six-year old brother. He was brought to the class and asked to remove his shirt – pointing to his back and turning to the class Mr. Clark told them, ‘this back is not the colour of mahogany, Marilyn Pole is a liar’ (I no longer use my first name having swopped to my middle name at 16). My brother was sent back to his class. I replaced him at the front and received the slipper for ‘lying’. I remember stammering, ‘but Sir, my mum said it was mahogany’. He wasn’t listening. My brother has never forgiven me for that incident of humiliation and I have never forgotten it.