Monday, 27 July 2015

6: School

1) First day

We were looking forward to school. We had watched longingly as our elder siblings had trooped off with the other children down the road in the mornings, coming back for lunch with tales of playground fights and teachers and excitements beyond what home offered.

On that first day our mother took us, and we walked in certain we were going to like it there. The main thing I remember though is a wail coming from the next classroom, "I want to be with the twins! I want to be with the twins!" Our friend had been put in a different class to us. An outrage, something we weren't expecting. Of course we would be together and carry on as normal in this new and strange environment.

As it happened they relented and by the end of the day he'd joined our class, and all was well. School could  begin now.

2) The naughtiest boy and girl in the class

...weren't me. From day one I was miss goody two shoes, never wanting to get into trouble. But my mischievous twin and our friend seemed to seek it out. If not, deliberately, trouble always found them. Like the time they decided to write in big letters just because it was fun. That act of rebellion cost them a place on the Blue (top) table and they were demoted to the Orange (second) table for a week. But their biggest fall from grace was one activities afternoon. We could choose what activity to do, and there was always a painting table. On this particular day our teacher was making a mural so most of us joined in with that. My sister and friend decided they'd rather paint. So they started to paint a picture each. They gradually worked their way round the table, using up all the blank paper provided. Then they got bored. So they painted the table. And the floor. And each other. I can still remember the outraged shout of "What's this?" from our dragonlike classroom assistant. I don't remember the punishment that time, but they were in BIG trouble.

The next year we swapped classes and our friend was quite happy to leave us behind. From then on in, my twin was a rebel alone.

3) Reading

The summer before we started school, my elder siblings had taught us to read. They made us little books and we soon picked out the words with ease. Which meant when we got to school we raced through the reading scheme. We were happily equal, my twin and I and it never occurred to me that it would ever be any different. Until the fateful day when she jumped two books ahead of me in the reading scheme. And I cried all the way home. I was always two steps behind her at school after that. I got over it in the end, but it's quite  a hard lesson to learn at five...

4) Maths

I started off at school enjoying sums. I could add three pigs and five pigs and make eight. I breezed through subtraction and multiplication. But then one day I was given a sum I couldn't do.  For the life of me I couldn't see the logic of having 10 pigs dividing them by five and getting two. I tried and tried, but remained completely  baffled. From then on in, a hatred of maths was born, and a feeling that I was incapable of understanding it. My dad always said it was like a language, but it was one which stubbornly failed to make sense to me. Which is is a shame, because (not for the first time) I shut myself off from a subject which I can see has given my eldest daughter a lot of pleasure. Still, at least I managed to scrape an O level in it. But without those damned pigs, who knows what might have happened?

5) Playtime

We had an infant playground and a junior playground, divided by some steps going down to the junior one. It was an act of ultimate defiance for an infant to be seen in the juniors (our poor sister a whole year older spent the lot of our first year at school being sent back up to the infants till my mum came up with the wheeze of putting our intials on our school jumpers). The playground was a rough and ready place. There were fights, and misunderstandings, and the times you get left out of games. But sometimes it was fun, and then there was always kiss chase. Which we played endlessly, although I never quite knew whether I wanted to be kissed or not. Most of the boys back then didn't seem terribly kissable. Luckily before I found out, kiss chase came to an abrupt stop when the head teacher looked out of the window one day and saw what we were doing, just as I was about to get caught. I was never quite sure afterwards whether I was angry or grateful.
5: The Family Down the Road

1) First Friend

We  grew up in a leafy suburban street, close to the primary school we went to. As it was a catholic school, there were a number of catholic families in our road, who like us had a lot of children. Our best friends lived six doors down. They were a family of seven and the youngest three were close in age to us. (Exotically they had TEENAGERS in the house, who listened to pop music and came from another planet).

My twin and I were best friends with their youngest son. Before we went to school we were often in their house, which was bigger than ours and was on three floors. Which made it perfect for mountain climbing. The hours we spent playing explorers up and down the stairs, were our happiest times. Our friend's mum was very tolerant, often packing us sandwiches for our expeditions, and only scooting us out of the way occasionally if we were a nuisance, and providing us with Nesquik at the end of our games. Nesquik.We never had that in our house, it seemed like heaven.

It was established early on that my sister and our friend would be getting married when they grew up. Why or how, I don't know, and I don't recall that ever bothering me. But they were a natural fit, mischievous and always in trouble, while I tagged along behind in awe at their recklessness, and wishing I could be more like them.

Our happy exploring days eventually ended when we had to go to school. And to be honest, nothing has ever seemed quite as much fun since...

2) Orphanages

In the long summer holidays that seemed in those days to stretch on forever, we would get together in our friends' garden and play orphanages. They were pretty gruesome games from what I remember. Our friend's older sister used to be the head of the orphanage and would come up with terrible punishments for us if we had been naughty. So she'd make us line up against the fence and pretend to use the rake to scrape down our backs, or tell us we'd have to eat dog poo if we weren't good. There was something heady and exciting about the horrible ideas she came up with, and when we invariably escaped as part of  the game (going down to the local pond and sitting beside it pretending to row a boat to get away), I was completely caught up in the idea that we really were running away.

Our other games weren't quite as vicious as that, but orphanages has always stuck in my head. What possessed us to come up with something so nasty? We didn't have access to grim videos, and had perfectly lovely families. But there was something teasingly enticing about wondering about a world that wasn't as safe as ours. I suppose that's the point of childhood games,  you explore the dark while knowing you can go to bed perfectly safe and well.

We were lucky, privileged even. They were truly halcyon days.

 3) Mr and Mrs L

Our friends' parents were delighftul people. They never seemed to mind extra children in their garden. And absorbed us into their family as part of the furniture. Mr  L worked in the print, which fascinated me for some reason, as it was so different my dad's teaching job. He was also keen on gardening and had a proper shed, which we were allowed to use as a club house. He was a terrible tease and enjoyed pretending he couldn't tell my sister and I apart. He called us Virjulia and Gervinia with a twinkle in his eye. He was always funny and kind. Mrs L was brilliant too, seemingly calm, but running a household that included an invalid elderly aunt who we would go and see sometimes. Looking back I can see she must have had a lot on her plate, but she was always serene and kind, with a wicked sense of humour. They were delighftul people, and their house was a very special place. I remember it full of sun and laughter and life. A true testament to their kind and generous natures. They are both dead now, but I will remember them with fondness always.

Thursday, 9 April 2015

4: Stories

It is probably no small wonder that I am a writer. Stories were part of the fabric of my life from when I was tiny. My father, an English teacher, had shelves of poetry, Shakespeare and the classics; my mother ensured no Christmas or birthday was complete without a new book to read. But more than that, they told us stories...

1) Mother

Some of my earliest recollections of my mother involve her reading. Every night at bedtime several of us would gather at the end of someone's bed, and my mother would read to us: Wind in the Willows, Winnie the Pooh, and a particular favourite, Bedtime for Frances, by Russell Hoban. I loved not only the stories, but the soothing sound of my mother's voice, which for some reason I always associate with rain falling outside. Perhaps it's that memory of feeling wam and cosy inside, and the childish thought that she could always protect me from whatever monsters might be out there. Whatever the reason, I loved to hear her read. Her voice was calm and kind, and she had an ability to conjure up a picture in your head of the story she was telling. As a small child, I think possibly the best part of the day was listening to her read. I still miss the sound of her voice.

At other times, she sang to us - but each of those songs were stories too. There was the tale of poor Tit Willow, (which I've belatedly realised is from Gilbert and Sullivan) who committed suicide, and my absolute favourite bath time song (which I sang to my own children):
My baby has gone down the plug hole/my baby has gone down the plug/the poor little thing/was so skinny and thin/it should have been bathed in a jug/the mother turned round/to the soap on the rack/Twas only a moment/but when she looked back/my baby has gone down the plughole/my baby has gone down the plug.
Proof (if any needed) that children have quite gruesome imaginations. But really I was FASCINATED by the tiny baby going down the plug, and wondered with mild curiosity if the same fate awaited my baby brother. I didn't think my mother would drop him down the plughole, but still...

2) Father

My father on the other hand, made up stories. And what glorious stories they were. There was one about a girl With a Wig and a Wag, and a Brown Leather Bag who outwitted a witch at every turn, to gain riches (I think), I can never quite remember the end. Or there was the nutty and brilliant Night of the Urgent Detergent - a play which I don't think he ever finished. It was a great pity he didn't, as he had a genius with words, and a very silly imagination which was appealing to small children. Another favourite (not written by him), but one he liked to tease us with in thunderstorms, begins like this: "It was a dark and stormy night, and the people cried, Antonio, Antonio tell us a story. So Antonio began, 'It was a dark and stormy night, and the people cried, etc ad infinitum" Like my mother, he had a great reading voice and he could hold us for hours repeating those words over and over again. I think we were slightly less fascinated the time he insisted on reading The Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner at the dinner table, but what both he and my mother did for us in spades was allow us space and time for our imaginations to run riot.

3) Siblings

And run riot they did...

I have seven siblings, and our childhood was punctuated with perfomances of plays, usually written by my eldest brother. My twin and I alternately starred as the Little Billy Goat in the Billy Goats Gruff, one sister was the Dormouse in Alice (which allowed for much tormenting as she was shoved in the teapot). Being at the younger end of the family, meant very few opportunties to shine dramatically, but my love of drama and storytelling was certainly fostered by those early performances, as well as by the games we played after tea each night.

In order to preseve her sanity in the winter months, my mother allowed us to play a game called Charge of the Children, in which we ran upstairs banging all the doors wildly, shouting and generally letting off steam, before decamping in the big bedroom at the front to play games.

The games were always the same as far as I can remember. Firstly we played Dr Who, in which my bro was (naturally) the Doctor, my two eldest sisters were a variety of baddies, the next one down was Jamie, and my twin and I were an interchangeable Zoe and Isabel (we did a lot of interchangeable role playing.) I think Dr Who was possibly my favourite, but I also enjoyed my brother's not very subtle version of Batman: Fatman and Dobbin, in which he (of course) played Fatman, middle sis was Dobbin, and two big sisters were the Penguin and the Joker, with my twin and I having the not very exciting bit parts of baddies' assistants.  The final game was completely made up, called the Linen Binner and the Tapper, which consisted of my brother climbing into our double cupboard, and tapping, and being followed by my sister in our plastic linen bin. The rest of us got to watch perplexed. I never quite understood what was going on, and much preferred Dr Who. But as no 6 in the family, I learnt very early on, that I wasn't going to get a chance to tell the story. Which is, perhaps, at some point why I decided to tell my own ...

Tuesday, 31 March 2015

3: Earliest memories


The first thing I ever remember...

I am around two, I think. And sitting happily and proudly with my twin sister at one end of the big silver cross twin pram, my mother had for years. (When it was done with my brother took the wheels off and devised a fiendish game where we sat inside, he put the hoods up and rolled us over. I swear my hatred of fairground rides started there.) Our little brother - aged about eight months?  - is strapped in at the other end. I think we are going to buy buttons at the haberdashery store near Southgate Station.

The pram is a cumbersome beast, and my mother is struggling to lift it off the kerb. Suddenly, the pram seems to fly through the air and get stuck in an upright position. My sister and I are flung on top of each other screaming loudly. My brother, though held in by the straps, is flailing towards us. I can feel my mother's panic as she tries but fails to free the pram. Hours seem to pass, and my sister and I are convinced of imminent doom.

Then... a kindly presence, a face I no longer remember, but a man appears, to help my mother release the pram from the kerb, and gently we are lowered to the ground, disaster averted. Having established everyone is fine, the man goes on his way, and we go to buy buttons. As if nothing had happened.


It is summer, and Wimbledon is on. A rare occurence when my mother will incorporate something she enjoys with her daily routine. My sister and I are toddling in and out of the lounge, half interested in the strange people whacking balls at each other on our tiny black and white TV, but more in the ants that are crawling through the air bricks in the patio. I am fascinated by what's behind the air bricks? Is there a secret cellar? (sadly there isn't, but even at three, I feel the need to make up stories about the things around me.)

I know from the pictures taken that day, that my mother sits down with us and reads to us and our brother, but I don't recall that. It's just the heat of the day, the summer dress with dots, which I love, the thwack of the ball. And the ants, popping in and out of the air brick, heading to where, to what?


I remember when a day turned black as night.

I know it was lunch time as we were waiting for our older siblings to come home from school. And yet, my mother had the light on, and outside it was dark, so very dark, I was terrified. Was it a storm? I didn't like thunder, but there was no lightning, just this inexplicable darkness.

Spookier still was a sudden gust of wind causing a massive clang as a lid blew off the dustbin, and my mother rushing to pick it up.

I think I may have hidden under the table as we always used to do in thunderstorms. I don't remember light returning, and yet, I suppose it did...

*22 September 1968 saw a total eclipse across the UK. I was about 3, I think it was the beginning of the school year, so I'm pretty sure I remember it!

Monday, 30 March 2015

2: 30 Selborne Road

The house I grew up in was an Edwardian terrace in a leafy London suburb. At the end of the road was a parade of shops, which were commonplace at the time, but looking back, I can see now they were already part of a vanishing world. When I was small there was a butchers (which I loved for the black and white stone tiles), a fishmongers which I hated, because I was frightened of the fishes' beady eyes, and a greengrocers. There was also a grocers' store called Cullens, where my mother would order the weekly shop which would be delivered to the house, which always seemed terribly exciting, and my favourite two shops: Sally's the newsagents where you could buy fruit salad and black jack chews for a halfpenny, and the bakery on the corner. The staff in there were really friendly and often gave us the buns which hadn't sold at the end of the day, which was a special treat. There was also an off licence, where my dad used to regularly send my older siblings to buy beer, until (much to his chagrin) they changed the law so that small children weren't actually allowed to buy alcohol.

Our house started off as a four bedroom semi, with a dining room, sitting room, breakfast room and small kitchen. When I was tiny, I slept in the front with bedroom with my twin, my three older sisters in the bigger front bedroom, and my brothers in the small back bedroom.  But when I was seven, deciding they needed more space, my parents converted the loft to a bedroom, which housed the boys from then on, while my twin and I shared a room with our middle sister and the two older girls got the tiny bedrooms. The extension was immensely drafty, and in windy weather it felt like you were on board a very creaky ship. The bedroom window looked out onto a flat roof, which my brothers took great delight in climbing out on. I was always far too wussy for that - but they were incredibly daring, and gave my mother palpitations by going as close to the edge as they dared.

Our garden was small, with a rough patch of lawn, which never grew, thanks to my brothers playing endless games of football and cricket. It also possessed to two beautiful silver birch trees, which at one time was home to a treehouse made by big brother, the construction of which caused my mother more palpitations as he fell out of it, though luckily to no lasting harm. I loved those trees, and was utterly heartbroken, when, just before my parents sold the house, one of them was so damaged in the storm of 1987, that it had to be cut down.

We backed on to a little recreation ground, called Conway Park, which was pretty much the perfect playground growing up. As was the norm in those halcyon days in the 70s when parents worried less about stranger danger, we were allowed to roam free there from morning to dusk, only being called in for meals. All the kids from our road played there, along with those on Conway Road which bordered the further side of the park. We played endless games of Block, Hide and Seek, Bulldog and Charlie, particularly in the summer months,when the evenings seemed to stretch out forever. There was also a pond where we fished for sticklebacks, newts and tadpoles, and where my little brother once nearly drowned (which is another story entirely).There were rivalries and gangs amongst us: another family from Conway Road were our main rivals - their eldest brother throwing my eldest brother's bike into the pond at one point, but on the whole we had a lot of fun there, and I think about those nights with great fondness.

Not every house in Selborne Road backed on to the park, which also gave access to a little cul de sac where the local school was. So every day, hordes of children would troop down through our side gate to get to school. Their mothers never took them (which I find extraordinary now), and I can remember in my preschool days watching them with envy, longing to be part of the elite school crowd. Then of course, inconsistently wishing I was back home with my mother as soon as I got to school.

I loved that house, and though it has long been sold, I dream of it often. It was a place of haven, security and love, the house I grew up in. And it will always be in my heart and memories for as long as I live.

Me and my sibs, the garden of 30 Selborne Road, c 1969

1: I am born....

I came into this world on 15 July 1965, half an hour after my twin sister. We were the fifth and sixth children in the family, and my mother had pneumonia and ended up spending six weeks in the London Hospital where we were born. My poor father was left to cope with a full time job, four children under six, with childcare provided by Norland nannies, and kind friends who pitched up to help with the laundry. We didn't have a car, and we lived many miles away from the hospital, so  I can only imagine how difficult that period must have been for them both.

Things weren't helped much by the manner in which I and my sister came into the world. In those days twins weren't whipped out at 36 weeks as they are often are now, so we were two weeks over our due date, and my mum had to be induced.

All went  swimmingly to begin with and my sister was duly born at 4.25pm (Just in time for Jackanory). It was only when I was having babies of my own, I completely twigged the stress of my much later arrival (4.55pm, in time for Blue Peter).

I had decided to head out shoulder first (according to my mother, who had trained as a midwife), the most complicated presentation in the book. So the attending doctor (who my mother had trained with) decided to turn me round to make me breach. Again, nowadays, my mum would have had an emergency caesarean, but back then the solution was to put her to sleep, while they got me out. Which is where it all went a bit pear shaped.

My dad had arrived at the hospital by now to discover he'd missed the first baby's arrival, and that my mum was allergic to something in the anaesthetic and at one point had stopped breathing. He told me much later, that it was the worst day of his life... gee, thanks. Though I do get the point. He must have had a moment when he thought he was going to be a widow with six small children. Thankfully, that wasn't the case, and my mother made a full recovery.

I don't know how long we stayed in hospital, but a very kind family friend, one of the few people we knew who had a car, made the trip from North to East London to bring us home, to the house where I was to live for the next 18 years: 30 Selborne Road, Southgate.


I turn fifty later this year. And I wanted to celebrate that by reflecting on places, people and things who have influenced my life thus far. I don't know if I'll manage to do fifty, and I doubt I'm going to have written them all by my birthday in July, but I thought I'd have a go anyway.

Hope you enjoy my thoughts, such as they are...