Tag Archives: Enid Blyton

Was I a snowflake?

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A life – part four

 

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

 

 

 

 

 

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The fun of fashion

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What to wear has occupied many happy  hours and years of my thinking life. So though some research has claimed that little girls and boys are conditioned to be male and female… pink versus blue…  I’m not convinced!

I don’t think any little boy could have felt the bliss that I did at three when I finally got to wear a sun-suit that had been too big for me. I remember the day I was allowed to wear it, I shall never forget the pattern of navy, pink, yellow and blue tiny flowers all over it. It was linen, it had tiny buttons down the front, and was the most beautiful thing I’d ever worn. I remember the glory of running to catch up the big girls next door, skipping through long fine grass that grew beneath the pine trees, and the shafts of sun-light beaming down between the rough trunks. And above all, the rapture of knowing that I was wearing such a wonderful thing.

Not quite the same rapture over my white petticoats trimmed with broderie anglaise, and the smocked pink dress and the blue dress, made of ninon – a fine muslin type fabric with soft little bobbles sprinkled all over it – but I still enjoyed them. A year older, and winter, I revelled in the Fair Isle berets and matching gloves my mother bought me and my sister.

I stood and watched with some disapproval as she preened herself in the two new coats she had just bought, one a black fluffy material with gold buttons, the other a smooth jade green wool with green and gold buttons. She had said she couldn’t resist them. I remember precociously thinking that there would be no more clothes coupons left for us.  I was five, and in war-time we had an allowance of coupons for the year, which once used, meant no new clothes until the following year.

School uniform was a treat then too, with beautiful quality velour hats with big brims and a wide ribbon round it for winter, and a Panama hat the same shape with another big ribbon round it for summer.

When my Victorian grandmother came to care for us after my mother had gone, she dressed me according to her firmly held notions. I went to school one day in an anguish of embarrassment, wearing soft leather full- length gaiters right up my legs with hundreds of tiny leather buttons. We needed a button hook to do them all up.  But I couldn’t get them off for PT (Physical Training), so she abandoned those, thank goodness. She spent hours at her treadle sewing machine making me pink satin, lace- trimmed dresses and the like, and sent me off to church in a new brown tweed coat which was agony every time I sat down. It turned out she had sewed up the scissors into the deep hem.

Worst of all were the bright purple fluffy mittens she got hold of – warm – but hideous. It lacerated my fashion- conscious soul every time I put them on. At my best friend’s seventh birthday party I left them behind at her house, hoping that that would be the end of them. But further humiliation ensued when my grandmother made me go back to get them, and so then every-one knew that these frightful objects were mine.

Bundled off to my new parents at nine and a half, they threw away all the clothes my grandmother had lovingly made me, and took us shopping in London, where we were equipped with little tweed velvet- collared coats and matching berets, pretty dresses, and best of all, check shirts and shorts, just like the girls wore in Enid Blyton’s books. Fine feathers indeed.

But they had to last… that was the last time we enjoyed such largesse. When I grew out of them, there were no replacements, and I had to manage on various hand-me-downs, and odd birthday presents. So when I started earning, the best thing about it was never again having to wear clothes that embarassed me. But though I wanted fine feathers, I had also learned the lesson we all did on reading ‘Little Women.’

The scene in which Meg, also humiliated by her worn clothes, allows her frivolous friends to turn her into a fashion plate for a party, and overhears some older women commenting, what a pity that that pretty modest girl had spoiled her appearance with frills and flounces, and crimped curls, had struck deep. Meg feels overcome with shame for not being true to herself.  So I wanted fine feathers, but not fashion overkill!

Oh, the lovely cut of winter clothes, the fabrics, the wool and tweed, the gabardine and mohair, the lambs-wool and cashmere, the knits and jersey, velvet and corduroy; the colours, rich plum reds and pine greens, the russet tones, and mustards, the navy blues and chocolate browns – breathes there a woman with soul so dead – to paraphrase Sir Walter Scott – whose heart doesn’t leap when confronted with these riches?

And for summer, we had linens and cottons and seersuckers and silk, the muslins and tulle, taffetas and brocades for evening. We’d never heard of denim then, and nylon was something for parachutes and stockings. Fashion for a teenager earning money at last, meant a circular felt skirt, a wide elastic waspie to nip in our waists, over a frilly starched cotton slip and worn with  a Marilyn Monroe sweater and flat pumps. In this get-up, we twirled and swooped, dancing to rock and roll, and skiffle, though we could still waltz and do Scottish dances at formal balls, in long romantic evening dresses accessorised with long white gloves. And then there was the mini!

But times have changed of course. I’ve just read a survey which claims that women’s waists now are seven inches bigger than they were in nineteen-fifty. The average woman’s waist then, they claimed, was twenty- seven- inches, and it’s now thirty-four. I think they’ve got it wrong – my waist was twenty-five then, and I envied the possessors of twenty-four inch waists. The research also says that women are square and waistless now, and that the old hour-glass figure has gone. I had noticed how waists are disappearing, and have wondered how anyone could wear a waspie any more, while circular skirts would not do much for expanded hips these days.

So it seems to me that women are not so much the slaves of fashion, as that fashion is the slave of women’s diet. And now that spartan war-time food, not just in England and Europe but probably in other parts of the world too, is no longer on the menu,  fast food and tampered- with food, and Too much of everything, seem to have re-shaped the female figure. And fashion in the shape of towering platforms and spiked heels seems to have hobbled women quite as successfully as bound feet in China.

So give me beautiful clothes, but not haute couture, fine feathers but not high fashion… and I will probably still be planning what to wear when I’m on my death-bed – maybe I should write a book about clothes – what to wear from the cradle to the grave. And I haven’t even mentioned hats!

Food for Threadbare Gourmets

That apple cake! It was scrumptious, but so crumbly that we needed a fork to eat it with. So maybe a bit less apple and a bit more flour would hold it together. And whipped cream lifts it to another level!

Tonight, roast lamb, which rarely crosses this threshold, but it’s a special occasion. So along with all the usual trimmings, I’m making onions in white sauce. Peel and chop several onions, and boil with salt and pepper until cooked. In another saucepan melt two ounces of butter, and add enough flour to make a stiff roux. I pour in about a cup of milk, and then a cup of the onion- flavoured water, and stir briskly. Put it back on the heat and bring to the boil, stirring all the time until thick. Add nutmeg to taste, salt and pepper and the onion. You might need more milk, though I like the sauce quite thick. I usually add a dollop of cream…

Food for Thought

Beauty is a choir of singers, a chorus of dreamers, a concert of aspirations, an orchestra of goals, a symphony of ambition and a ballet of productions.

Glenda Green  Born 1945. Artist and author of ‘Love without end. Jesus Speaks’

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