When we occasionally walked past what was known as the elementary school in those days, I used to shudder. The grim Victorian building, the concrete playground and iron railings, the noise and roughness of it horrified me. I was so grateful, even as a small child, that I went to my sheltered little school.
Unlike most prep schools one reads about in that period my private school was neither cruel, sadistic or frightening – perhaps because it was owned by a woman and all our teachers were women, except for the wonderful history teacher.
Miss MacFarlane-Watts, owner and head mistress, was a tall commanding woman with thick, grey hair cut almost as short as a man’s. She wore white shirts with a tie, heavy pleated skirts, tweed jackets, thick stockings and flat lace- up shoes. Without ever having heard the word lesbian or even a discussion about genders, I knew she was different… and we all accepted her as such. School was a large Edwardian house set in tree- ringed grounds and lawns, not far from where we lived.
As a fashionista even at that age, I rather enjoyed our school uniform… white blouses and navy blue pleated tunics with a braid belt for the girls, and grey shorts and jumpers for the boys. Our hats were my real pride and joy, a big brimmed, deep crowned navy- blue, thick, velour hat for winter with a striped ribbon with the school colours, and a wide-brimmed Panama hat for summer – they were so big that we little girls must have looked like mushrooms beneath them, and it was amazing that items of such quality were still available at this point in the war. We kept these expensive hats from flying off in a wind with a piece of elastic which went under our chins. Even our gabardine macintoshes were the finest quality.
Clothes had always figured largely in my life even as a toddler, when I remember the broiderie anglais edging my white petticoat, and relished my delicate little smocked ninon dresses, one in pink, the other in blue… does anyone even know what ninon is today … a fine net covered in tiny balls of fluff is my recollection.
My grandmother inevitably had somewhat old- fashioned ideas about clothes, one of which was to kit us out in liberty bodices… a sort of cotton layer worn on top of a vest and under a jumper, with buttons round the waist to hook a skirt on. They weren’t too bad, but I shrivelled with embarrassment when she sent me to school in antique leather gaiters to keep warm. They stretched the length of my leg, and the tiny buttons running that whole length had to be prized open with a button hook to get them off… this experiment was abandoned when I couldn’t cope with getting them off for physical education!
The day we arrived at this school, the infant mistress – who seemed enormous to me – swung my tiny blonde sister up in the air, looked into her big blue eyes fringed with impossibly long black lashes, and said “Oh, what a little Topsy!” She didn’t take to me… children always know… and a few days later, she said to my bewildered little sister: “If your sister put her head in a bucket of water, you would too, wouldn’t you?” To which my sister baldly replied “Yes”.
It was a kind environment. A few years later, when I was eight and one of the big girls, my brother started school. He was so frightened by the experience that he was sent up to my classroom, and was allowed to sit by my side at my desk for days until he was ready to cope on his own.
Lessons were archaic. We learned to write copperplate, often using badly crossed nibs to write rows of letters over and over again until we got the right angle and shape of each letter. On handwriting days, the ink monitor – (never me – I was such an introvert that no-one even knew if I could cope with such responsibility, and I was happy to be overlooked) brought the tray of inkwells in, and they were passed along the rows of desks… then the pens… inevitably there would be spills – usually by a hapless boy.
Each day began with chanting boring times tables, while we sat with our arms folded, and I sometimes think the ritual may have been a calming meditative exercise too, for we never had any rowdiness or fuss to disturb the quiet orderliness of the classroom.
Art lessons nearly broke my heart. I was so excited when it was announced that we were now old enough to begin art lessons. But it was a huge let-down. We had to learn to draw a straight line, making short feathery strokes with our pencils. After a couple of lessons when we had mastered this arcane skill, we graduated to drawing a rectangular box and tackling perspective. With this accomplishment behind us we were now ready to be introduced to colour ! Hurray! We were instructed to bring a laurel leaf with red berry attached to the stalk to school the next day. Alas, our laurel hedge had no berries, so no lovely red for me, just boring green and yellow spotted leaves.
No computers then, so we competed with pencil cases, and collections of hard-to- come- by coloured pencils. We marked our pencils by slicing off a sliver of wood to make a flat surface at the top and then inked our name on it. Indelible pencils were much sought after… you licked the lead, and this made the writing indelible… as for rubbers (erasers if you’re American) – if you lost one, or broke it in half by using it too strenuously, war-time replacements were scarce… whispers criss-crossed the classroom – “can I borrow your rubber”, “can you lend me your red pencil?”
At Christmas we were all dragooned into the Nativity play. I had no idea what it was we were doing… which was not unusual… I spent so much time dreaming that I often missed important information. On this occasion, we all trooped down to the hall nearby, and I found I was an angel along with the other small girls. I was given a triangle to ching on at various not very obvious intervals to me.
The boys seemed to have all the best parts as wise men, wicked kings, shepherds – and of course, Joseph. They also had all the best musical instruments – tambourines, and trumpets, drums and the rest- this was the moment I realised somewhat bitterly that boys/ men had advantages that we girls did not seem to have. And while we stood around in our angel nightgowns in the freezing hall, the teachers seemed to endlessly move rows of chairs around. It was all a complete enigma to me then.
The next year we passed on the nativity play as we’d lost the use of the hall to the American soldiers who used it as their dining hall. They seemed noisy and enormous – wore fur-trimmed jackets – air crew I learned later – and since our back garden abutted onto the back of this hall, showered us with chewing gum, wrapped cubes of sugar – much prized – and sometimes bars of chocolate.
My grandmother gave us three pence pocket money every week, and with this I bought a bar of chocolate every Friday from Mr Duscherer, the German grocer just up the road on the corner. Everyone knew he was German, but I never once heard a word of disparagement about him. He was a big kindly man and I used to watch with pleasure as he prized a wire through a big round of cheese when you ordered a quarter of a pound or whatever the ration was then.
He had a huge machine that cut bacon the way you wanted it – smoky, thick or thin, streaky or back… he would weigh half a pound of biscuits out from big Peak and Frean biscuit tins into brown paper bags – did biscuits not get soggy then, I’ve often wondered, as I try to break into thick layers of cellophane to get into a biscuit packet these days. He sold stamps, posted parcels – usually wrapped in scarce and re-used brown paper, tied with re-used string and sealed with red sealing wax- no ubiquitous cellotape then, and he also stocked Sunny Stories, Enid Blyton’s weekly magazine for children with the long running serial The Faraway Tree in it.
Life seemed simple and safe and satisfying, especially after my grandmother bought me a little blue bicycle, and I no longer needed to make sure that all my dolls were safely tucked up in their cot and had been kissed good night, a ritual which I needed to do when my mother was still with us, and I now recognise as psychological transference.
And with the end of the war it was all about to change dramatically.
To be continued.
Food for threadbare gourmets
Today, I had one duck leg left over after a little feast yesterday, using a tin my son had given me, so I made a duck risotto. It was delicious. Did the usual, onions, cooked half a dozen finely chopped mushrooms, fried the rice in butter, threw in a glass of good white wine to evaporate, and then added hot stock and a good pinch of dried thyme. When it was nearly cooked, added a generous dollop of cream, some green peas, and the duck meat which shredded beautifully. And then, with duck and orange in mind, added the grated rind of an orange and the orange juice.
When ready, I covered it for ten minutes to sit and mature, then stirred in a big knob of butter and some parmesan. Served with more parmesan, green salad and glass of chilled Riesling, it was rather good.
Food for thought
It is never too late to be what you might have been. George Eliot, great Victorian woman novelist