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.

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