I grew up in an age when my every move and development was not captured on camera. I am currently the proud owner of over 3,000 photos and videos of my 10 month old granddaughter, so with that in mind I imagine that my first memories are genuine and unprompted.
My first three memories come from a time before I was three, in the form of strong multisensory images. The most interesting thing about these memories is that the sense of the world around me is proportional to my small size. I remember lying on a polished red tiled floor at my grandparents’ house, having tripped and fallen down a step in the middle of the kitchen. The step I am looking up at is imposing and appears to stretch high above me.
My second memory sees me toddling through a door from the garden straight into the cup of hot coffee left on the floor by my father. As I sit crying on the floor beside a huge kitchen chair, my mother dispenses bright yellow ointment to soothe my leg. I think I can hear a dispute between my parents on the dangers of hot liquids and small children.
And finally, of course, the home birth of my brother. I am looking up from the middle of a large single bed in a state of anxious anticipation, knowing that something momentous was happening, without knowing what it was. My father appears at the door and I am led into the other bedroom to meet the new baby. It was shortly after that I remember sitting on the stairs while my mother bathed the new baby and slowly and deliberately rubbing zinc and caster-oil baby cream into the brown and yellow wall paper of our rented house. Possibly the one of the most defiant acts of my life.
Oak Lodge Primary School West Wickham
The door slammed shut and the key turned silently in the lock. As I sobbed, tears dripped down my face and I turned slowly to face the others in the room, a few children standing alone and forlorn. I was just four years old and this was my first day at primary school. I have a photograph of this momentous day, where earlier that morning I can be seen smiling obliviously outside my house, proud of my new gingham dress, green blazer, velour hat and huge leather satchel. But there was one problem, I had never been separated from my mother and no one had thought to prepare me for that moment. Nursery schools may have existed then but I had not been sent to one. Grandparents visited but only occasionally at weekends. That morning, having been abandoned in the playground I absconded and ran back up the road in pursuit of my mother and baby brother. She had no choice other than to return me to school where I was torn screaming from her arms and marched to the classroom, where other ‘difficult children’ had been locked in. And so began my school career.
From an early age I had suffered from persistent middle ear infections which significantly reduced my hearing. At regular intervals throughout my childhood I had relied on the district nurse calling in several times a day to inject me with antibiotics. As a consequence, I tended to catch the gist of what the teacher was saying but not the meaning. My mother had taught me to read before I went to school so literacy was never a problem but not so Maths. When I was only five, the teacher gravely shook her head and informed my parents that I was never going to understand numbers. I cannot imagine quite how she had come to this conclusion but unfortunately she was right. I learnt to accept school and maybe from time to time even enjoy it but I don’t remember ever receiving praise for anything. I think if I had, my whole school experience would have been a more positive one. At the start of every afternoon we were told to put ‘heads on desks’ and rest. In the 1950s polio was the fear of every parent and tired children were thought to be more susceptible. There was a polio epidemic every summer in one part of the country and by the 1950s polio had become a serious communicable disease among children.
In the early years we wrote in pencil, diligently copying the teacher’s loopy script from the backboard. Once we progressed to using a pen, the china inkwells inserted into the desk were carefully filled by the ink monitor.
School lunches were a battleground. Every child was expected to eat absolutely everything that was put in front of them, without exception. I was not a fussy child but rice, semolina and tapioca pudding made me sick. As the lunch session progressed, it was a bit like musical chairs until only a few children were left at one table in the middle of the school hall, staring dismally at what was left on their plate. This situation continued well into afternoon lesson time as we stubbornly refused to comply. After a while I learnt there was only one way out of this situation. After vomiting, the plate was removed. I shamefully returned to class.
I remember no adults from primary school except the Head Teacher Miss Shilling. She was the epitome of old fashioned spinsterhood, not so much a person but a formidable presence, with thin grey hair barely covering her scalp. Make-up was thickly applied to her soft lined face and finished with bright red lipstick.
She had a system whereby she could press a button which flashed a light in a chosen classroom. At that moment the pupil who was the ‘yellow badge monitor’ had to leave whatever they were doing and race to her office to receive an errand. I can remember dancing and jumping across the hall to imaginary music playing in my head and entering her office with some trepidation to be overwhelmed by the strong smell of sweet perfume and make-up. She sat behind her desk, her thin bony hands clasped before her. These were hands designed for slapping small girls, while the cane was propped menacingly by her side destined for the bare legs of small boys.
Every Friday ended with an assembly. These assemblies were formal and regimented, and if I had ever glanced over my shoulder at the class sitting behind I might have spotted Philip, who I was later to marry. A marriage that was to last just three years. As the ‘Dambusters’ March’ played us out, Miss Shilling stood erect and threatening, at the end of the stage, hands clasped, as girls curtsied and boys doffed their caps in respect.
However, what Miss Shilling was really known for were her school productions. These were nothing short of perfection when the school hall was transformed into a theatre. Children were drilled in their lines and wore spectacular costumes. As a six year-old I was cast as an angel with a white gown pulled over my liberty bodice, a massive pair of silver wings and matching halo. My role was to kneel on the wooden stage beside the crib, arms folded across my chest. The floor was hard and unforgiving, the performance too long. My cherubic pout was due to boredom and discomfort but Miss Shilling had my image taken out of the main photograph, enlarged, framed and hung on the wall of her office.
The proudest moment of my primary school life was transferring to the junior school and being able to wear a green beret with a scarlet tassel which I could feel moving around on top of my head representing my new status.
I remember little else about Oak Lodge except the nit nurse, not being able to hear the teachers due to my inadequate hearing, falling over constantly in the playground and cutting my knees, defending my brother from bullies, not being able to climb ropes, the 11+ practice papers and the long walk from home and back. I left there when I was eight but that of course is another story!