I have had a week or so off from the blog for “The Festive Season” – blogging while under the influence of “Festive Cheer” is a short road to disaster, as I’m sure you’ll agree. However, I have made a significant breakthrough this holiday which I’m fairly sure I can attribute to the cathartic effect of the blog to date.
On New Year’s Eve I was able to give a family dinner party, in our own home, for five people and I thoroughly enjoyed every minute of it. “So what?” I hear you say – simply this: I have not been able to “entertain” in this way for many years without anxiety attacks and misery if I went ahead with it, or most often chickening out completely. Any of you who have suffered with depression, anxiety and so on will appreciate what a milestone this has been for me. I am, to put it in the vernacular, “as chuffed as little mint balls!”
So, where was I before the break? I think I was in a cell at Walthamstow Police Station on Forest Road, awaiting my doom. This arrived eventually in the form of my Dad, who drove me home in tight-lipped silence with the muscles in his jaw twitching – a sure sign that he was repressing blazing anger.
On arrival, I was hustled unceremoniously into a hot bath, which I have to say was very welcome and little if anything was said about my long weekend of freedom until the following day. I tried to explain why I had “taken off” and hidden out instead of coming home. I felt sure that if I had arrived home I would (a) have been in dreadful trouble and (b) have been packed off back to Surrey post-haste. The misery of life at CoLF School gradually dawned on Mum (and I think on Dad too, although he was loath to admit it) and they started to come around to the idea that it would be better if I did not return there.
At one point, I remember a telephone call from the Headmaster at CoLF in the course of which he insisted on speaking to me personally. He said that the school would “take me back if I gave him my solemn word that nothing like this would ever happen again“. I can remember my reply, word-for-word, “On the contrary, Sir. If I am forced to return, I give you my solemn word that I will take off again at the first opportunity!” That – as they say – was that. I would not be returning to Surrey and arrangements were made for my personal effects to be sent home. I might add that none of my personal books, writing materials (including a boxed geometry set which had belonged to my Dad) or other assorted belongings were ever seen again! Only my clothing made it back to Hollywood Way – one can only assume that all those frightfully well-to-do, well-brought-up girls acquired them, probably with Bruiser’s blessing.
Before I close the door on the City of London Freemen’s School forever, there is one last incident to record. On the Christmas following my departure I received, addressed to me personally, a Christmas Card framed in the most friendly terms, from Bruiser herself. I have no idea what possessed her to send it – she surely cannot have believed in her wildest dreams that it would be welcome! I was overtaken by a rage of which I had never felt the like. Trembling and speechless, I ripped the card into confetti and dumped it into the nearest bin, under Mum’s astounded gaze. “Who was that from?” she asked, “Miss Beck!” I spat and the incident was never mentioned again.
Now we had to face the problem of getting me back into school locally which – in mid-term – was no easy feat. I assumed that I would just go back to Walthamstow High School and pick up where I left off but it seemed that things were not quite that simple. While Mrs. Taylor, The Headmistress, was perfectly happy for me to go back, apparently some of my former classmates had objected to the idea! It seems that the cliques had re-aligned themselves in my absence and if I returned, I was to be made “persona non grata” by my erstwhile friends.
Mum and Dad tried once more to get me into Woodford High but were again unsuccessful. There was even talk of me being sent to William Morris – which was a sort of half-way house between High School and Secondary School educational standards. Needless to say I did not want that – I might have been a “problem child” but I knew perfectly well that to get into University I would need to have a High School or Grammar School background. In the end, after much soul-searching on my own part and those of Mum and Dad, I went back to Walthamstow.
The first couple of weeks were pretty hard going and my classmates were as good as their word but before too long things had more or less slipped back into the old routine. At this time there was a scheme afoot to let pupils who had “strong” subjects (other than English and Maths) sit their ‘O’ Levels one year early in those subjects. The idea was that if they passed they could then spend the all-important ‘O’ Level year concentrating on their weaker subjects and if they failed they would be able to re-sit the exams in the following year. I was put down to sit French and History at the end of the Fourth Year and consequently had a lot of extra course work in these two subjects, which successfully took my mind off any uneasiness about the attitude of my “friends“.
It was also round this time that I met and developed a massive infatuation with my first “real” boyfriend. His name was Derek (known, inevitably, as Del) and he was about 4 years older than me, which at that age was considered a huge difference. He was tall, well-built and had the most gorgeous tawny hair – neither blond nor ginger but – as I described it to Mum – “the colour of lions“. I was besotted with him.
Unfortunately for both of us, he became involved in the drug culture which was rampant among East End teenagers at the time (personally I was very lucky to avoid such involvement) and was therefore “known to Police“, which made him Public Enemy Number One as far as Dad was concerned. It was a torrid but physically rather short-lived affair, cut short when he was arrested, convicted on drug charges and sent to Borstal at Sandwich Casemate in Dover. We wrote to one another once or twice a week while he was incarcerated and I kept his letters in my school briefcase to prevent them from falling into Dad’s hands.
One afternoon I went back to our form room to collect my belongings after lunch and found that my briefcase had been emptied out onto the floor and Del’s Borstal address and “Prison Number“, along with his name and mine, had been written on the chalkboard in large capitals. I hadn’t time to clean the blackboard before our form teacher came in to take the afternoon register. She, thankfully, merely cleaned the board herself and said nothing, for which kindness I was extremely grateful. People blamed Sylvia for this incident but on reflection I have my doubts – indeed, I had them at the time but kept them to myself. Teenage girls who see an illicit romance in which they have no part to play can be both bitterly jealous and unbelievably cruel.
I got on with life back at Walthamstow until the end of the Spring Term of 1968, when Mum and Dad finally gave up on their marriage and decided to divorce. Dad bought Mum and I a lovely bungalow in Heckmondwike, West Yorkshire, just around the corner from a similar bungalow to which Grandma and Grandpa Parkinson had retired a year or so previously – and before I knew where I was I was whisked off to live there and back at Batley Girls’ Grammar School, this time for good. The day we left was the first time I ever saw my Dad cry and notwithstanding our difficult relationship my heart was broken. As we went out of the door the radio was playing The Moody Blues “Go Now” and it was many years before I could hear that track without weeping.
We hadn’t been in our new home more than a week or so when I received a letter from my Walthamstow classmates, full of such hatred and vitriol that I felt physically sick and my knees threatened to buckle under me. Someone had accused me (quite falsely) of “getting off with” her boyfriend just before I left and the tribe had closed ranks against me. It was made abundantly plain that my return to sit the two early ‘O’ Level exams at the end of the Summer term would be a day of reckoning.
Of course, there was one enormously good and happy thing about the move up to Yorkshire and that was that I would be at the same school – and once again in the same form – as June. Not for the last time, her friendship, practicality and sense of fun practically saved my sanity whilst I was at BGGS. The other girls accepted me back without any problems – the atmosphere at this school was so completely different from the hot-house menace of Walthamstow. Apart from the occasional reference to “that Southerner” if I had annoyed someone for some reason, my fellow pupils were a great bunch. The same could not be said, however, of all the staff.
Our Headmistress was called Miss Nimmo and she was a very odd bird indeed. She was of indeterminate age, approaching 6 feet tall and built accordingly, with sandy hair cut around a pudding basin, going grey and incongruously fastened at one side with a tortoiseshell slide, like a child of 6 or 7. Like Bruiser, she favoured tweeds, twin-sets, lisle stockings and sensible brogues, but there the resemblance ended. Oh, and she also favoured “Directoire” silk knickers, which she displayed to all and sundry owing to her habit of sitting on the Assembly Hall stage with her knees wide apart!
Miss Nimmo was as naive as you can possibly imagine – far more so than most of her pupils – and had not one iota of malice in her whole body. Her idée fixe was that as many of her pupils as humanly possible should achieve entrance to one of the Oxbridge Universities and nothing, least of all the career aspirations of the pupils in question, would divert her from this single track. She flapped around the school in her own Graduate’s black gown like a benevolent bat.
On being informed that I was taking two of my ‘O’ Levels early and would need to return to London for a day at the end of term in order to sit them, she “Harrumphed” a bit and said she supposed that could be accommodated but reserved the right to disapprove of the scheme. In the meantime, I was to continue taking Fourth Year French (than which I was already much further advanced) but, because of the different curriculum followed in Yorkshire, I could not attend History classes. I was irritated – I loved History – but felt sure that all would be well once the exams were behind me. Miss Nimmo also, very kindly, allowed me to wear my CoLF uniform, which was not unlike the Batley uniform, rather than insisting that Mum purchased all new for me. She insisted on me having the school’s cherry-red beret, striped tie and replaced the monogram of CoLF with that of BGGS on my navy blazer, but otherwise I could make use of what we already had. However, she seemed not to have communicated this fact to her Deputy.
Miss Sowden, the Deputy Head, was an altogether different kettle of fish from Miss Nimmo! Slight of build and like a whipcord; beautifully, if conservatively, dressed and as sharp as a tack. She had a tongue that could strip off several layers of skin, too, and was not sparing in the use of it. Several weeks into the term she tore me off a huge strip in front of practically the whole school because my Summer dress was not BGGS uniform. I tried to explain that I had Miss Nimmo’s permission to wear my old uniform but she wouldn’t let me get a word in edgeways. When she eventually brought her tirade to a close, I asked her, very politely, to speak to Miss Nimmo about my uniform, turned my back on her and walked away. Miss Nimmo must have straightened her out because I never heard another word about it. She could also let her prejudices show from time to time, as on the occasion when she rounded on a quiet, well-behaved but very “broadly spoken” girl called Janet Fisher with the words, “Janet Fisher, you speak like a collier!” Very quietly – but firmly – Janet replied “Aye, Miss Sowden. Ma faither is one!” I think that was the one and only occasion on which any of us had ever seen Miss Sowden blush!
However, Miss Sowden could also be very kind when the need arose. When June was taken very ill at school one day, it was Miss Sowden who detailed me to be with her while we waited for the ambulance to arrive and then asked me to go in a taxi to fetch her mother to the hospital. When at one point I began to cry, she said, quite sharply, “Pull yourself together. You’ve done so well up to now.” but while she spoke, her hand was patting my shoulder. A woman of many parts, was Miss Sowden.
The teacher at Batley whom I really loathed was our French mistress, Mrs Rogerson. She was one of those small, perfectly coiffured, elegantly dressed women; always made up to perfection, wearing lovely jewellery and reeking of expensive perfume. That, however, is not why I disliked her so much. She took grave exception to being told that I would be taking the ‘O’ Level a year early because French was one of my two best subjects . As it turned out, I passed the ‘O’ Level first time with a B+ but, owing to Miss Nimmo’s odd way of thinking, I was forced to attend French classes all through the Fifth Form and to sit the ‘O’ Level again with everyone else! Nope – it made no sense to me either, but Miss Nimmo’s word was law and that was that!
Mrs Rogerson decided to take me down a peg or two and took every opportunity to “put me in my place“. However, every year the school held a French Verse Speaking competition and for some reason she chose me to represent our Form in the Senior group. She did not expect me to do well and had picked out a favourite from the Sixth Form to stand against me, whom she was convinced would walk the competition. Now the judging was done by a gentleman from outside the school who obviously was not privy to her plans – and I won hands down, coming away with a “Gold” medal which was mine to wear until the next contest. As we filed out of the Assembly Hall after the judging, she blocked my path and said, very loudly, “I see it’s true that gentlemen do prefer blondes!” (her preferred candidate was a willowy brunette). I smiled sweetly and mentally told her to do something physically impossible, even for such a narcissist as she was!
Now, I had decided that I wanted to study Sociology and Economics at University. This was because I wanted to work in the Probation Service and they were seeking graduates in Sociology and / or Economics. In order to take these courses at University, I required a minimum ‘O’ Level in Maths and ‘A’ Level in History. This was to qualify for a “Red Brick” University, and of course Miss Nimmo was having NONE of that. No, because I was good at languages, she decided that I should study Latin and French to ‘A’ Level, in order to get into either Oxford or Cambridge – her perpetual obsession.
So when I passed the French ‘O’ Level in the Fourth Year and sadly failed the History ‘O’ Level by only 5 marks, Miss Nimmo’s plan was to force me to sit the French exam again in the Fifth Year but to prevent me from sitting the History exam again – even if I studied for it in my own time! She said the school would not, under any circumstances put me forward for the History ‘O’ Level, which it would have had to do even if I studied for it alone. And just to make absolutely sure that I could not pursue my chosen path, she told our Maths teacher, Mrs Ineson, not to put me forward for the Maths ‘O’ Level either! Admittedly, I would have needed some coaching to get through the Maths exam, but I was prepared to do it. No dice – I was going to study English, French and Latin, whether I liked it or not!
Not altogether surprisingly, I began to lose interest in my education during the Fifth Form.