Wednesday, 26 September 2012

The Lowther Years

                                                THE LOWTHER YEARS

            The next five years were to pass in relative stability.   My mother was working in Malvern and I was going to School in North Wales.

            Lowther College was in the heart of the country, near a village called Bodelwyddan.  There was a church, a village store and a pub.  The nearest town was Abergele.  It was probably one of the safest places to be in wartime.  No bomb was ever dropped there, to my knowledge, no planes flew overhead.

            Lowther itself was originally built as a castle in the 15th century by the Williams family.  It was restored and rebuilt in the 19th century in mock Tudor style.  It was surrounded by 250 acres of ground and woodland.  It was set at the top of a hill and reached by a long driveway with fields on both sides.  Some of these fields were used as playing fields for hockey and lacrosse.  Every Sunday the girls would walk down the drive to go to Church.

            The entrance to the college was through a great archway which led into a courtyard round which were the school buildings.  A great big oak doorway in the centre of the archway opened into a dark imposing hallway.  The headmistress’s rooms were here.

            After Blackdown and Trevelyan, Lowther was overwhelming!  Both these schools had been small private schools, with about a hundred children.  At Lowther there were  250 children.  Everything was on a huge scale:  the assembly room for morning prayers with a raftered ceiling;  the dining room with a moulded ceiling;  the large classrooms. There was a Library with books reaching up to the ceiling.  There was a sitting room with comfortable leather chairs and sofas where the girls could relax or study.  This was also where debates were held.

            There was a hall with a stage where concerts and plays were performed, and where the girls would assemble to listen to visiting musicians.  There was a swimming pool, one of the first in the country. And a well equipped gym.  There were also several tennis courts and, at one time, even a golf course.

            Then there were the girls, of every age from eight to eighteen.

            Before I arrived at Lowther my mother had had to obtain the school uniform for me, at some expense.  Certain items were available secondhand, such as the gym tunics for everyday use, which were grey, finely pleated, falling from a top band and worn with a black girdle.  They were worn as short as possible.  This was long before the mini-skirt came into fashion!  Mine barely covered the tops of my black stockings which, in those days, were attached by suspenders.  Voile dresses in green and cream could also be had secondhand.   These were worn on Sundays.  I hated them, they were shapeless and had no style.

            Other items were navy skirts and navy coats, long sleeved white blouses, school ties, Aertex shirts and green shorts for summer, and beige nylon stockings.

            Armed with my uniform and a tuck box, I arrived at Lowther in the autumn of 1942.  I had just turned fourteen in the summer holidays.  I was put into a form where the girls were slightly younger than me, I do not know why.  These girls mostly came from the north of England, and their parents had made money either through business or industry.  So here it was not ‘class’ but ‘brass’ that counted.  They had different and varied accents.  There were a few scholarship girls, but no distinction was made for them. 
            I was not unhappy here.  I was not popular, as I was too shy, but neither was I singled out.  I did make a few friends amongst the girls who were ‘swots’ like myself.   I was good at languages, English in particular, and I could read as much as I wanted.  I read all the classics now, the Brontes, George Eliot, Thackeray and Dickens.  I remember reading The Pickwick Papers in bed with a torch under the bedclothes, creasing up with laughter. 

            I entered a Short Story competition soon after I arrived.  I laboured over it in the school holidays, when I was in Malvern with my mother.  For some reason, I had decided to write a satirical fairy story.  To my great surprise, I won the competition.  The English teacher read it out in class, much to my embarrassment.  What made it worse was that no-one laughed, there was not even a titter.  I have it still, written out in my best handwriting.  It was called Prince Rupert’s Dilemma.  It was about a fat prince, a drunken flying horse, an ugly princess and a bucket of plaster of Paris.  It was meant to be funny.

            My mother, of course, was delighted at my success, and I think she already saw me as a writer.  She sent the story to Argos, a magazine which published short stories;  it no longer exists.  They kindly wrote back saying they would be pleased to see further work from me when I was older!

            I was no good at sport of any kind as I seemed to have no coordination between hand and eye, and I spent most of my time being ‘goalie’, where I could do the least damage.  Girls who were good at games were always the heroines, and those who became captains and vice-captains of their teams were able to sport cherry red girdles with their tunics!

            It was during my fourteenth year that I decided I did not believe in God.  I could not see him, hear him, nor feel him, therefore he didn’t exist.  Church services I found dull and uninspiring, and one Sunday I decided to skip Church.  I was sleeping in an individual cubicle by then.  I was amazed to discover, many years later, that my absence had been noticed, fortunately not by the mistresses!  No-one ever mentioned it.

            I did, however, read the Bible, as I loved the poetry of the St. James version.  Many years later I remembered verses that I had read, which had lodged themselves in my subconscious mind, and I recognized their truth.

            It was in this same year that I had a dream which I have never forgotten.  I do not dream a lot, or at least I don’t remember them, so this one has always remained with me.

            I was in a log cabin high up on a snow covered mountain.  I was sitting at a table with several other girls, and there was one man.  He was dark, attractive and he was the centre of attention.  The girls were laughing and chattering with him, but I was silent, at the end of the table, too shy to take part.  One girl from the school I remember in particular.  Her name was Belle.  She was younger than me, but taller, with long fair hair which she wore in a plait. She had a round face, with blue eyes and rosy cheeks.  She was outgoing and friendly, and very popular;  everything I would have liked to be.

            In my dream I remember feeling small, unworthy, unclean; I had a vivid sense of being like something found under a stone, not fit to be seen.  I got up and slipped out of the door into the snowy night.  I started to run, then I slipped and found myself tumbling down the mountainside, faster and faster.  I was very frightened.  Suddenly I was caught up and held.  I was safe in the arms of the man in the cabin.  A feeling of overwhelming joy and happiness swept over me, a deep, deep feeling of being loved.

            One or two friends to whom I have told this dream, have said it was a sexual dream.  It may well be, but I have always thought of it as a spiritual dream, telling me that I am loved through and through.  It has always stayed with me, and has been a comfort in dark times.

(to be continued)

Copyright Daphne Radenhurst 2012



Saturday, 22 September 2012

Move toTrevelyan School

                                                MOVE TO TREVELYAN SCHOOL

          Two years had passed and in August 1939 my mother and I returned to Brittany to stay at the Abbaye.  It was only four years since I had left there, but it seemed like a world away.  When we passed Mlle Abilly, the Mother Superior, on the stairs, she greeted me kindly but I shrank away from her.  I had become a nervous, very shy child.  My mother reproached me, but I was no longer used to the nuns in their long black robes and Mlle Abilly had always been a rather severe figure, even more so when I saw her then. I did not see Sister Yvonne, who must have been away.  My relationship with the nuns had changed.  I was no longer one of them, but one of the visitors.

Our visit was notable because we were on the brink of war with Germany.  Although one crisis came after another, there was still a carefree atmosphere amongst the holidaymakers and, much to the disapproval of the nuns, they continued to dance  in the hall at the end of the garden in the evenings.

It was the beginning of September when we were all told we had to leave France straight away.  We embarked hastily at St. Malo and arrived back in England to hear that war had already been declared.

With the outbreak of war, Dulcie and Maureen’s father decided it was time for them to return to New Zealand and they left Blackdown.  It was very soon after this that my mother and I also left.   The name of the new School we were going to was Trevelyan.

            Why did my mother decide to move to another school?  We were  happy where we were.  From my point of view it was a disaster.  I think that she probably felt I would be getting a better education, and also that I would be moving into a better social class, both of which meant nothing to me.  My mother was very aware of her own status, and always insisted on being called a Lady Cook-housekeeper.  As had been the case at Blackdown, my board and education were to be apart of her salary.

            I suppose also my mother might have thought of Trevelyan as a 'proper' school, and not just the dreamchild of Mrs. Hastings.  Trevelyan was a small, private school  for girls  in Haywards Heath in Sussex.  There was one large, redbrick building with about two acres of ground and garden. It was run on strict, almost military lines.  The girls all came from upper class, mostly wealthy, families.  It couldn’t have been more different from the relaxed, easygoing style of Blackdown.

            There were any number of rules and regulations which, if broken,  meant being  given an order mark.  If a girl got six order marks in a half term, she had to go and see the headmistress, which I invariably did.  Many of them were for the most trivial misdemeanours.  I was very absentminded and tended to forget things.  When we left our bedrooms after breakfast, we were not supposed to return to them, but I always forgot a handkerchief or my pencil box or some book. I would creep back to my room, hoping that the housemistress, who slept next door, would not be in.  She always was.  She was a large, bosomy Jamaican woman, Miss Jackman, and she towered over me.  I dreaded her.

            I was by no means a naughty child, but every half term I would find myself in the headmistress’s room being scolded for no reasons that I could understand.   The headmistress, Miss Frances, was a severe looking woman with cropped iron grey hair, and thin tight lips.  I did not warm to her.

I made no friends, as I had nothing in common with the other children.   I had lost my best friend Dulcie, with whom I had had fun and who, in many ways, had protected me.  I no longer saw my mother, as it was forbidden for me to go to her room.  Being naturally shy, I withdrew still more into myself.  Occasionally I made remarks which made them all laugh.  I remember being introduced to a new girl with the words “and this is the Fool.”  I wanted to sink into the floor at that point. 

I began to go around in a state of near permanent anxiety.  I missed Blackdown,  dear Mrs. Hastings and Miss Lane, with her snow-white hair and her kindness and encouragement.

            I was supposed to be getting free elocution lessons, normally an extra, as my mother must have sung my praises.  However, I completely failed to live up to my reputation. The elocution mistress, like Miss Frances,  was a rather cold, formal woman and my combination of shyness, nerves and fright meant that I completely dried up, becoming wooden and lifeless.  I never again displayed any talent in that direction.

            I can recall one mistress, Miss Redman, the history mistress, trying to be friendly to me, but I was too shy to respond.  This was the moment, I am sure, when I developed all the problems which would follow me into my adult life.  I retreated into reading books, my school work and writing.  I amused myself by creating a magazine of which I was the Editor and wrote all the articles and stories.  I still remember one phrase which I wrote: “the salt tears ran down her face and into her gaping mouth”!

             I was clearly not getting on too well, and it was decided that I should go from the Middle School down to the Junior School.   I now found myself with girls a year younger than I was.   I was twelve at the time.  In some ways this was better for me as I felt more at ease with the younger girls.

 There were two sisters whom I remember well, Elisabeth and Helen Birdwood:  their father was a general.  Elisabeth, the older one, was very pretty and it was she who had introduced me as “the Fool.”  I now found myself with Helen, the younger sister.  She was not as pretty as her sister, but a much nicer girl  and we became quite friendly.

            Then disaster struck.  One night in the dormitory Helen and I were playing around, we had taken our pyjamas off and were rolling over each other naked.  It was an innocent game:  we thought we were being deliciously naughty, and we were giggling away.  At that moment the door opened and in walked the matron, Miss Harkness, a large woman, with a florid complexion. She was as starchy as her uniform. 

            We sprang apart. She looked at us with shocked surprise.

            “Whatever are you up to?   Daphne!  Put something on and come with me.”

            She hurried me away and I was put in the sick room to sleep, where I stayed for the next few nights.

            I was now in the doghouse.  Being the eldest, I was held responsible, though I do not think it was even my idea.  I remained segregated in the sick room, and was visited a day or so later by a child psychologist.  I remember him as a kindly and approachable man.  We talked and he asked me questions, and he formed the opinion, rightly, that our play had been perfectly innocent.

            Whilst I was being kept in the sick room I had plenty of time to reflect, and I was as puzzled as ever as to why I was being kept apart from the others, as though I had some contagious disease!  I received a worried note from my mother asking me if I had been telling them “SAY stories.”  What she had actually written was “SEX”, but I read it as “SAY” and I had no idea what she meant. In those days we were very ignorant about all sexual matters, and I was probably even more so, having no father and no brothers.

            The psychologist’s visit was, however, to have a profound effect on my life.  He had come to the conclusion that it was not a good thing for me to be in the same school where my mother was the cook-housekeeper.  Cooking at that time was regarded as a menial occupation, and my mother would have been seen as a servant. 

            I was still doing well in my school studies.  It was decided that I should try and get a scholarship to another boarding school.  I took several exams for different schools, and I finally obtained a scholarship to a minor public school in North Wales.  It was called Lowther College.

            This was a very distressing time for me and I remember hardly anything about it, nor how my mother felt.  She must obviously have been very upset.  My mother had been going deaf for some time now;  even at Blackdown she had worn a large, unwieldy deaf aid tucked down her front and this made it much harder to talk to her.  Now, coupled with her own reticence, we hardly seem to have communicated at all.

            The time came for me to leave Trevelyan.  I did not regret it.  I had one or two good memories:  wrestling with Mary Jackson down in the bunkers during the air raids;  writing a poem to Jean Abel-Smith, who was a cousin of the  queen and making her laugh;  telling ghost stories in the dorm, for which I had developed a talent.

  I was about thirteen and a half years old and I was leaving with a strong inferiority complex and a complete lack of confidence in myself.

It was the middle of the war.  My mother left Trevelyan soon after I did and went to work at a school in Malvern called Lawnside, whilst I started my new life at Lowther College.




Monday, 3 September 2012

My Mother

                                                MY MOTHER

            I feel now that I should write a little more about my mother and her background, as she has been a somewhat shadowy figure in my story.

            (I began my story with the words:  “But I’m alive, I exist.”  One of my intentions in writing my story is to explore what it means to be human:  the nature of existence, of identity; how our identity is shaped by the social mores of our time; how our freedom to be ourselves is curtailed by the demands of society; how much of what we are is determined by nature and how much by nurture.  And then finally, there is the ultimate question:  who or what is God?)

                                                *    *    *    *

            My mother was born in 1889 in a small town called Indian Head, in Saskatchewan, northern Canada, a place of  endless prairieland.  She was baptised Florence Nora, but was always called Nora.  Her father, Arthur Ridsdale, had sailed from England to Canada, met and married her mother, Sarah Sanford, and by the time Nora arrived they already had three children, a boy and two girls.

            Arthur Ridsdale was a farmer and farmed a large area of land up in Saskatchewan.  He was away for long periods and his wife, who was pretty and lively, formed other relationships.  This eventually led to their divorce a short time after my mother was born.  My mother was adopted when she was eight months old by her aunt (her mother’s sister) and her husband.  They lived in Barrie, Ontario, on a lake called Lake Simcoe, thousands of miles away from Saskatchewan, and my mother never saw any of her own family again.

                                                      *   *   *   *

           ( Many years later, when I was trying to find out more about my family, I discovered that Arthur Ridsdale, in order to join the army during the First World War, had declared himself to be fourteen years younger than he really was.  Several months later he was discharged on the grounds of ill health.  He also remarried and, it seems, absconded with his wife’s money!  So he appears to have been both a liar and a thief.  He lived to the ripe old age of 81.

            My mother’s side of the family was called Sanford, and the line was traced right back to 1633 when a Sanford sailed from England to Massachusetts in America, where they prospered and made good.  This lasted until they fought on the side of the English in the War of Independence.  After being defeated they fled over the border to Canada, where they became known as EU Loyalists.)

                                                      *   *    *   *

            My mother was always hyper-sensitive.  She told me how she used to have nightmares when she was a child of being pursued by wild bears. When she was six her little brother was born, named Arthur.  Very sadly, at the age of five, Arthur died after being badly burned in a fire in the home.  This must have had a traumatic effect on my mother, aged 11 at the time.

            Nonetheless, she had a happy childhood.  Her father was a solicitor and a respected member of the community.  They led a comfortable, middle class life. 

           She used to walk several miles to school every day, which probably gave her the strong constitution she needed in later life when she had to cook for a living.  She was a clever child, often coming top in her class.  She thought of going to university, but in those days a pass in subjects such as trigonometry was needed, which was quite beyond her.  She was very artistic and loved dressmaking.  She was making her own clothes at the age of eight, she told me.  When she grew older she started designing and making wedding dresses for all her friends.

            They led a healthy, outdoor life.  In the summer they would go sailing and swimming, and in the winter they would skate on the frozen lake and go snowshoeing across the fields covered deep in snow.  They had a lively social life, with parties and dances.  When having a party they would sometimes go from house to house, each family producing a different course, until they ended up at the final house with the pudding.  It all sounded quite idyllic to me!

             My mother had become a beautiful young woman.  She was leading a happy life;  she had many friends and several male admirers.

            All this came to an end with the beginning of the First World War in 1914.  Many of the young men went off to fight.  All the finest young men were killed in the war, my mother used to say.

            Her mother’s health began to deteriorate. She had always been fragile;  she became an invalid and took to her bed.  My mother nursed her, also taking on many of the duties of running the household and her mother’s social duties.  In 1923 her mother died, and several months later her father also died. My mother had gone away for a few days to stay with friends and she  heard her father calling her in the night. He had died that very same night.  

            My mother was now 32 years old and she was on her own;  unlike most of her friends she had not married.  At some point she had fallen deeply in love with a married man.  They had contemplated eloping together, but had decided against it in the end.

            She now decided to go and study art in New York.  She applied to the School of Fine and Applied Arts to study stage and costume design.  She had not been there long, however, when she had an unfortunate accident.  She was knocked over on a street corner by a car late at night which never stopped.  Her leg and hip were broken.  She had to spend months in hospital;  the hospital fees were exorbitant and living in New York was very expensive.  She felt she could no longer afford to continue her studies there.

            She returned to Barrie and from there she started going to the Toronto Academy of Art.  This was where she met my father, who was teaching there.  My father was an Englishman who had recently come over to Toronto from England, after being offered a teaching post in industrial design.  They began a relationship, but again he was a married man.  She wanted to get away and she decided to go to Paris and study art at the Sorbonne.  On one of the rare occasions when she said anything to me about my father, she told me she had been very lonely at the time.

            At some point in her life my mother  had become an atheist.  Like everyone else at that time she went to Church;  her family were Anglicans, and she sang in the Church choir.   But she read a great deal and she began to read books by Julian Huxley, which influenced her thinking.  Her father once picked up one her books and looked at it.  He said, rather sadly, “this would destroy anyone’s faith.”

            After her father died, his cousin was left in charge of handling the Will and the estate.  As so often happens in families, relatives started squabbling over the possessions;  they descended upon my mother in her home, taking what they wanted from under her nose.  As these were all upright Christian citizens, my mother’s opinion of them as hypocrites was confirmed.

            When I reflect on my mother’s life up to then, although she had had a secure and happy life, there was also much loss and sadness in it.  She was clever, with many talents;  she was beautiful with a great zest for life;  she was adventurous and enterprising;  she was kind.  She was also hypersensitive, with a certain reserve and timidity about her.  Her life was not going to be an easy one, and it would demand enormous strength of character and courage.