Sunday, 27 January 2013

Final years at Lowther

                        FINAL YEARS AT LOWTHER

            I was now in the Sixth Form.  I was studying French with Valerie, a very friendly, rather giggly girl, and we were together a lot.  Valerie invited two of her French pen friends to come and visit Lowther, and she asked me along to meet them as well.  I was quite upset when they told Valerie  afterwards that they found me “sinistre.”  I don’t think we either of us understood what the word meant.  Sinister didn’t make any sense.  I looked it up in the dictionary, hoping to find a more favourable meaning.  It probably meant dismal or gloomy!

            I studied German with a girl called Mary.  She was very tall and rather imposing, with a strong hooked nose.  She was a kind, friendly girl and I felt comfortable with her.  We would laugh together at our German teacher, a most unfortunate looking woman, tall and flat chested, with a sallow skin and enormous feet.  She was extremely prudish, and whenever we had to translate the word “Brust”, meaning breast, a word which seemed to occur frequently in German literature, we would translate it as chest, usually very inappropriately.

            All the other sixth form girls were now prefects.  Evidently it was felt that I should have some role and I was made President of the Literary and Debating Society.  When the first  debate came, I had no idea what to do.  I had not thought to ask. The English mistress hissed at me, feeding me the words I had to say.  I sat back thankfully after that for the rest of the evening, with nothing more to do.  I felt I had humiliated myself very publicly, and I hated attention of any kind.

            I used to write a lot during these final years.  I wrote poems and short stories, translated French poetry into English,  and tried my hand at writing sonnets and poems in the Miltonic style.  I copied all these out very neatly into a large, stiff covered notebook, rather like a ledger. I also copied out bits of writing that appealed to me, and wrote reviews of films that I had seen.   I still have this book.  I think they used to be called ‘Commonplace’ books.

            Looking at this book now shows me someone very different to the one I presented to the outside world.  This girl has a lively, curious mind;  she has a love of beauty;  she is full of enthusiasms;  she is idealistic;  she has a sense of social justice, and a sense of humour.  But I never shared or showed this book to anyone.  I was able to express myself in writing and on the page, but never in words.  When with others, I was often tongue tied and usually only found the words I needed when the subject had moved on, and by then it was too late.

            I have often wondered whether this inability to express myself stemmed from the fact that I had been forced to write with my right hand in those early days in France.  Just as some people can develop a stammer for the same reason, so some vital connection in my brain had been disrupted.  Added to this the fact that I lived in a state of almost permanent anxiety.

            A poem dated December 1946 is called:  “My Aim”.

            “My aim is to
            Sing a song of beauty,
            To gather loveliness
            Out of the wind's caress,
            To bring pain
            Into the heart of youth,
            To draw out passion
            From the budding rose
            And make it live again
            In some throbbing breast.
            To pierce the bud of jessamine
            And bring forth scents and sounds
            Excelling all those ever smelt or heard on earth before.
            That is my aim.”

            A tall order!  At eighteen such vaulting ambition is allowed.

          In a review about a film called Viva Zapata I described Marlon Brando:   “a man with a most remarkable face.  He has a profile like St John in Leonarda’s Last Supper – front face he has little triangular eyes with glowing pupils, full lips ….”. 

 Another extract which I copied is from Rilke, the German poet, written in 1904  in which he described with great prophetic vision how the roles of men and women would change in the future, and how they would become equals.  I do not think that has entirely come about, even now.

  I loved poetry,  and I used to read the St. James’ Bible, mostly the New Testament.  I had a small bible given to me when I was eleven, by my music teacher at Blackdown.  I think she suspected, rightly, that I was not going to get much religious education from my mother.  On the flyleaf was written “Jesus Christ the same yesterday, and today, and for ever.”

 One morning on waking, I heard two girls talking. At that time we were sleeping in cubicles separated by a curtain.  One of them was saying:

“I had a dream last night about God. But all I could see were these enormous feet.”

“How did you know it was God?”

“I just did.”

I had given up any belief in God, and yet I was very intrigued by this conversation.  I must have filed it away somewhere in my mind, as I have never forgotten it.

            My holidays were still spent in Malvern.  Sometimes the terms overlapped and my mother would  be working.  At these times I would help her in the kitchen:  I learnt how to make pastry, using six pounds of flour and four pounds of fat, and mixing them together with my hands.  I enjoyed doing this. My mother made very good pastry and she told me the secret lay in the lightness of the handling.  Another time I would have to beat up sixty egg whites in the electric mixer until they became stiff.  This was then mixed with apple puree to make Apple Snow.

 Occasionally I would prepare the breakfast on my own, so that my mother could have a lie-in.  I would lay out bacon and tomato halves on large trays and pop them into the Aga ovens to cook.  There was a kitchen maid there as well, who would prepare the tea and coffee and make the toast.

            I usually got on well with the kitchen maids.  I felt more comfortable with them than I did with most people. They were cheerful and easygoing and called me  ‘lovey.’  Somehow there were no demands made on me, and I could be myself.  My mother always treated them well, but she was much more conscious of her class and status.  She always insisted on being called the lady cook housekeeper.

            It was one of these times when I was helping my mother in the kitchen, that I became aware of something else.  The gardener, who was called King, used to come into the kitchen to find out what was needed in the way of vegetables. He was a cheerful, sturdy man with the healthy complexion of someone who lives outdoors, with reddish sandy hair.  He was probably in his late forties.  I remember standing by the kitchen table, watching them talking.  My mother was flushed from her cooking, with tendrils of hair  escaping onto her face.  She stood with her hands clasped behind her head, and she was smiling.  There was something about her posture which I found disturbing.  Why was she standing like that, I wondered.

            During the summer holidays we would sometimes go to Hove, staying in a bed sitting room, and making our meals on a couple of gas rings.  There were plenty of things to do: we visited Brighton, which was a very stylish resort in those days,  we made bus trips onto the Downs, we went to a very pretty village called Rottingdean, and of course,  there was  always the beach, swimming and sun bathing.

            This was the time when the fact that we were at war really impinged on me.  The sirens would go and I waited for the ‘doodlebugs’  to start flying over.  When they stopped, my heart would start thudding.  My mother, who could not hear them, remained calm and this helped me not to be afraid.  Fortunately, they never dropped near us.  Finally the All Clear would sound and we could relax.

            Once, when we were in Hove, my mother’s friend, Walter Tuck, came to visit us.  This was   when I was about twelve.  I had not seen him since I was a small child in France, so they must have kept in touch.   Some years older than my mother, he was a tall, austere, rather detached figure.  Whilst I sat on one bed, they sat and chatted on the other one. 

“She has rather fat legs”  he commented at one point, which did not please me at all, especially as they were talking as though I were not there. I think he tried to befriend me, but I  remained very aloof.

            My mother had one other friend whom she had met when we were living at St-Jacut.  Her name was Eleanor Robertson and she was a Canadian. She was an independent and quite remarkable woman.    She had trained as a dietician and worked in a hospital in Japan for many years.  When my mother met her in Dinard she owned her own tearoom.  She  moved to England shortly before the war in 1939, and started a tearoom in Kingsbridge in South Devon.

            She was always very kind to us.  We used to stay in Kingsbridge and visit her in the tearoom.  She made the most delicious scones and chocolate cake and she always allowed me to listen to Children’s Hour on the wireless, which was a great treat, as we did not have one.  She became, in a way, like a maiden aunt.

            When Miss Robertson gave up the tearoom, she bought a bungalow on the outskirts of Kingsbridge and we used to go and stay with her.   She must have been about ten years older than my mother.  Looking back, I do not feel that she and my mother had a great deal in common.  She  was a cleverer woman than my mother.  She was not religious, but I think she felt compassion for us both.

I began to develop the very bizarre notion that she wished my mother ill and was going to poison her.  Did I have the sense that in some way she disapproved of my mother?  Was this some kind of mistaken loyalty on my part?  Whatever the reason, I became very suspicious of her.  I never said anything, of course, but I always felt very uncomfortable during our visits to her.

             With hindsight, I regret this, as I think she liked me and she left me some money when she died.

            In 1946 I took my Higher Certificate exams.  In the summer holidays, I received the much anticipated postcard from Miss Sayers  congratulating me on my successful results.  My mother was delighted and I was pleased too.  At least I had proved myself worthy of a scholarship.

  It had been decided that I should try for University.  At that time though, it was still necessary to have Latin to qualify for entrance.  As I had not studied this subject, Miss Sayers very generously extended my scholarship for a further year.  This was mainly due, I now think, to her admiration for my mother. 

I returned to Lowther for my last year.           


Wednesday, 2 January 2013

Life goes on and a new problem


            I had become very self conscious about my body.  At Lawnside I had become aware of my breasts beginning to form.  I would hug myself trying to hide them and wear shapeless cardigans, which I would wrap round myself.  This must have been a residue of the years with the nuns and my unconscious belief that the body was a shameful thing.

            By the time I got to Lowther my personal appearance began to be important to me.  I was small, about 5 feet tall, with a long body and short, sturdy legs, with quite a large behind.  I used to roll from side to side on the floor several times a day, in order to reduce this part of my anatomy, not, I think, with very much result.  I had thick, rather unruly hair which I never knew what to do with.  My features were regular and probably marred by my gloomy expression.  Photos of me at that time show me with my mouth turned down or else looking very serious.  I certainly did not think I was pretty.

            Boys, another preoccupation of our teenage years, were not around.  There was a boys’ school nearby and we sometimes got a glimpse of them when walking outside the grounds in a crocodile.  Some of the girls did have boyfriends and we would listen to their tales with keen interest.  I had a great curiosity about the opposite sex, but my knowledge of them came purely from books and films.  My hero at the time was Laurence Olivier and his dark, saturnine features   looked out from the signed photograph which I had by my bed.  I told everyone he was my uncle.

            My head was filled with romantic notions based on fairy stories and novels of a handsome prince who would one day sweep me off my feet and bear me off to “live happily ever after.”  I held on to this notion for quite a long time. 

            Apart from lessons and games, there was ballroom dancing, drama and singing.  My inner tensions made me unable to let go and follow the rhythm of the music when trying to do the foxtrot, the quickstep or the waltz.  These sessions were an ordeal for me as I clumsily trod on my partner’s toes and missed the beat.  In drama I fared no better as my early talent in this direction seemed to have gone for ever.  I tried to get into the choir, but again my voice dried up when I went for an audition.

            I was no good at art either and was certainly not inspired by the jugs, bowls and busts we were asked to draw.  I did, however, like drawing faces and would often scribble in my exercise books whenever I was bored in class.  I liked copying pictures too and, during the holidays, would happily spend hours with brushes and a box of watercolours.

            Of the teachers, I remember the headmistress, Miss Sayers, best.  She was a tall, rather masculine figure with cropped white hair, a florid complexion and strong features, formidably intelligent, with a double First from Cambridge.  I was in awe of her but not afraid, as she was essentially kindly.  Her best friend was the mathematics mistress, Miss Prentice, who was the complete opposite.  She was small and rather timid.  She had no authority and, as children will, we played her up.  I remember a girl creeping up behind her dangling a large black spider.  On another occasion some girls started up a fire at the back of the classroom.  I wrote to my mother complaining that I was learning no maths.  My mother wrote to Miss Sayers, to my dismay, and I was summoned to her office and roundly told off for my disrespect.

            It was wartime, but we were hardly aware of it.  Although there were newspapers which we could read, I never looked at them.  The only way in which we were affected was the  food;  raw, tasteless shredded cabbage took the place of salads;  on Sundays we had lemon tarts as hard as concrete.  We were often hungry and to compensate we had midnight feasts in the dormitory.  I remember eating concoctions of cocoa powder mixed with condensed milk which we ate on the ends of our rulers, blackened by ink stains, and once devouring a whole jar of plum jam from my tuck box.

            One of my favourite memories is of Saturday nights when we were allowed a treat.  We would gather in the corridor, wrapped up in blankets and with our pillows, to listen to the Man in Black, a popular radio programme.  Sitting in the dark felt deliciously spooky as the deep, velvet voice of Valentine Dyall told us a ghost story.  I still loved reading ghost stories and I was still telling them in the ‘dorm’ at night.  One of my favourites was called The Beast with Five Fingers. all about a bodiless hand which could move about with great rapidity and was seeking vengeance.

            During these years at Lowther my mother was working in Malvern at Lawnside School.  Lawnside was a small private school with a very eccentric headmistress.  The school was her own, a gift to her from her father, and so she could do very much as she pleased.  She was a great patron of the arts, and the school curriculum was weighted heavily on the side of music, literature and language and art, with very little attention being given to scientific subjects.

            My mother was an excellent cook and a very clever housekeeper.  In spite of the wartime restrictions she managed to give the girls balanced and nourishing, as well as tasty, meals. In fact, the girls used to say they had better meals at school than they did at home!  Miss Barrows was delighted and admired my mother’s talents greatly.  She also admired the way my mother was bringing me up single-handedly.  She was very generous to us and during the school holidays kept one of the school houses open so that we could both live there.

            All my holidays were spent in Malvern.  I loved it there.  We had a whole house to ourselves and  a garden.  Malvern in those days was an old fashioned town which sprawled up the hill.  It had a pleasant park and there was a cinema.  I would spend most of my time reading, or going to the ‘pictures.’  The films were gentle and sentimental:  Nelson Eddy and Jeanette MacDonald, Deanna Durbin, even Shirley Temple, and there was George Formby for laughs.

          I would go for long walks on the Malvern hills, taking a packed lunch and a book.  Sometimes my mother and I took the bus and had tea at The Singing Kettle high up on West Malvern hill.  There were dark, round oak tables, blue and white Indian Tree china, light fluffy scones with jam.  Sitting on the terrace, on a clear day, we were able to see over five counties.

          Many years later my mother wrote a cookbook, called Better Cooking for Large Numbers.  She asked Miss Barrows if she would write a Foreword for it, which she did, in typically generous fashion.  She wrote:  “ ‘The Principal’s chief pre-occupation is the food.’  Not until Mrs Radenhurst loomed on the School’s horizon did this ‘chief pre-occupation’ of mine give me any sort of satisfaction, but at the end of her first week in the kitchen I began to realise that with the same food bills we were getting really exciting meals that were reminiscent of the bouillons of France, entrées such as one sits over in the Tour d’Argent in Paris, and cakes like the best of Doney’s in Florence.” Slightly over the top, but this was Miss Barrows all over.

           Miss Barrows was a great headhunter and used to invite celebrities of the day, such as Bernard Shaw and Elgar to the school, and a great viola player of that time, Lionel Tertis.  She liked to show off my mother’s cooking, and my mother was invited to cook dinner for them.  Miss Barrows was a highly volatile and autocratic woman and my mother could also be temperamental. I remember these occasions used to produce great rows between them, which usually quickly blew over.  Once my mother gave in her notice and went away for a term, only to return after Miss Barrows’ entreaties.  I used to hate these rows and seeing my mother upset, probably because it made me feel so insecure.

           Looking back now, I wonder if my mother was lonely.  With her increasing deafness she did not make friends easily.  She did have two good friends who were devoted to her.  One was her assistant in the kitchen, and the other was a junior matron.  They both remained her friends till she died.  My mother was an educated and well read woman and I think she thought it would be interesting to be with teachers, but she told me once that they never talked anything but ‘shop’.  I was certainly no company for her, as I was wrapped up in my own thoughts and dreams.

          The war was over.  I was invited by my French pen friend to stay with her in Lille in northern France.  This was when my mother and I discovered that we had a problem.  I had no nationality as my birth had never been registered.  How was I going to get to France?

          Without a nationality, how was I going to get a passport?   My mother went to see a solicitor, who was unable to help us.  It seemed I had fallen between three stools:  I could not be French, I could not be Canadian and nor could I be British as my birth had never been registered. I remember I even wrote a letter to Sir Anthony Eden and received a  noncommittal reply.  In the end our problem was solved, I suspect with the help of Miss Barrows.  I was to be considered as an alien subject and I was given an Aliens certificate, which enabled me to travel.  I also had to report to the police every time I changed my address.

            How I felt about this at the time I do not recall, except that it must have reinforced my feelings about being an outsider.  At least I was now able to get to France.

            I was seventeen and in the summer holidays I took the ferry and train to go to Lille with some trepidation.  My French pen friend was called Lucille, she was the same age but she was much more sophisticated than I was, and very well dressed in a chic French manner.  My mother was still making my dresses and I felt very much the “country cousin” beside her.  I was very tongue tied and had no idea what to say to her;   I had no social graces.  I remember overhearing her parents saying, in a puzzled way, “elle est très jolie.”    I felt surprised but mollified.  We continued corresponding for a little while, but we had not become great friends and we stopped writing.

            Back at Lowther.  I was now going to study for my Higher Certificate exams in French, English and German.  What I was going to do after that I did not know, as I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life.