Growing Up British

A Memory of Burnt Oak

Since my birth coincided exactly with the outbreak of World War II in the September of 1939, my mum must have felt that childbirth was synonymous with calamity;  I was Mum's 'war effort'.

Home was a semi-detached two-storey house in Melrose Gardens, a cul-de-sac of thirty-two identical semis in Edgware, Middlesex.  Dad was a printer by trade, and during the war years Mum worked at de Havilland's aircraft factory.  My earliest recollections of those years was alternately being hoisted on Dad's shoulders to "watch the fireworks" (bombing) over London from our front door, or being hurriedly shoved into the pillow-lined steel cage Dad had rigged under the living-room table.  Sometimes we joined the other families in the street-shelter 'til the 'all clear' sounded.

Every child received a bottle of cod liver oil and another of orange juice (the former definitely to be taken before the latter).  Powdered milk and eggs were the only kind we knew and I thought delicious.  Dad managed to get me an apple on the black market for 2/6d. and I'm sure he paid more for a banana, which I didn't know had to be 'unzipped' and I bit right into the bitter tasting yellow peel.  But the least memorable delicacy of the war years was whale blubber, which went into the frying pan ten times bigger than it came out, and tasted like nothing meant for human consumption.

As time passed and the war showed no signs of letting up, we kids were evacuated out of harms' way.  I remember waiting with hundreds of other children on the station platform, each of us with a luggage tag tied to our lapels with our name and address of destination.  I was sent to Chesham in Buckinghamshire.  It was on that train that I came face to face with the first black person I had ever seen.  He was a G.I. and the biggest man I'd ever laid eyes on.  He and an Aussie soldier, who we recognized by the lop-sided upturned hat brim, shared a compartment with some of us kids.  The American soldier asked "Want some gum, honey?"I shook my head, not knowing what he meant, but he pressed a stick of Wrigley's chewing gum into my hand, and with another stick demonstrated what to do with it.  I promptly swallowed the whole thing, much to the soldiers' amusement.

I don't know how long I was separated from Mum and Dad, but I do remember the Victory street party with ice-cream, and my best friend Sylvie's dad banging a big bass drum.  The blackout sheets were replaced with brightly coloured chintz curtains and Britain got down to the business of rebuilding.

I still have a memento of those days.  It's a letter from King George (suitable for framing) dated 8th June 1946.  Under the royal coat-of-arms with the lion and unicorn rampant, and the motto 'Dieu et mon droit' it says:  'Today, as we celebrate victory, I send this personal message to you and all other boys and girls at school.  For you have shared in the hardships and dangers of a total war and you have shared no less in the triumph of the Allied Nations.  I know you will always feel proud to belong to a country which was capable of such supreme effort; proud too, of parents and elder brothers and sisters who by their courage, endurance and enterprise brought victory.  May these qualities be yours as you grow up and join in the common effort to establish among the nations of the world unity and peace.' and it is signed George R.I.

Almost from the moment I took my seat in Miss Gow's class at Roe Green Primary School, I had this sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach. School and I were not a match made in heaven.  The terrible tales of 'the cane' as administered to non-conformists by Head Mistress, Miss Hopkins, should have been enough to keep me in line.  But before I knew it, the words were out - I had committed the unforgiveable.  I had talked in class.  Then came the sentence; 'Down to Miss Hopkins' office' - oh please let me die right here and now, thought I.  By the time I knocked on Miss Hopkins' door, I was sobbing my heart out.  She called me in and must have seen the utter fear that convulsed me, because she said, "If you don't tell anyone that I didn't cane you, I won't, but you must pretend I did.  It'll be our little secret".  How do YOU spell relief?

Growing up in a cul-de-sac was like having a huge family where all your siblings are farmed out to the adjacent homes.  We were a close-knit bunch of more than twenty kids, ranging in age from three to sixteen and we were never short of things to do.  Someone could always bring their mum's clothes line with which we would skip by the hour.  'Under the stars and over the moon' could accommodate as many as ten skippers at one time.  And when we doubled up the rope, one or two extremely agile girls, whom we'd dubbed 'double-jointed', could skip 'Double Dutch' while the two ropes were turned in opposite directions at the same time. Anyone who could do anything that the majority of us couldn't, was said to be double-jointed.  Oh how I wished I was double-jointed.  As it was, they said I had a strong arm so they let me be rope-turner much of the time.

Whip and top, marbles or 'migs', five stones or 'jacks', and balls were our constant companions.  A very large green with seven elm trees formed the centre of our little community, so as long as you could get enough kids together, a game of 'rounders' could always be counted on to pass the time.
Once 'rounders' was called, each team did its best to recruit Eric Treemane or Terry Frewin who no longer came out to play at the drop of a hat, but could be depended on to slog the ball over the rooftops.  At seventeen, they didn't mind the opportunity to show off for the girls and flex their batting arms, but that was the extent of their involvement with us 'little kids'.

Hide 'n seek and 'release-ee-o' were other group games, but the best was our version of 'knock down ginger'.  We always pitied the less fortunate kids of Britain who had to resort to the manual knock-and-run-like-heck method.  We had the elms for cover, so with bent pins on lengths of cotton thread, four or five of us would slip the pins over the knockers of four or five adjacent houses, then we'd carefully take our spools of thread behind the trees, and on the signal would all tug at once, then giggle ourselves silly at the language emanating from the frustrated mums and dads who had answered the phantom knocks.

As in any family, kids argue and fall out.  Each of us kids was 'sent to Coventry' by the others on occasion, but the trick was not to look as if you were missing anything while the rest of the kids played on the green.  To sit on the curb drooling was unthinkable.  For myself, I developed the juggling art of throwing more than one ball at a time up the wall of my house. I must have spent more than my share of time in Coventry, 'cos I got good enough to keep three balls going up the wall, and in the air, at one time.

Saturdays were the best day of the week.  School was over for two whole days and Saturday morning pictures was first on the agenda.  With one shilling pocket money, and ration book in hand, I'd start off with three penn'orth of sweets to take in with me.  'Flying Saucers' were cheap but didn't last long.  Those pastel coloured sealed discs of rice paper that enveloped fizzy powder, melted in your mouth. A stick of barley sugar lasted longer, so did a bag of lemonade powder, and in the darkness of the cinema, I could stick my whole tongue into the bag without detection.  But 'gobstoppers' were my life, and very nearly might have been the end of it.

One Saturday, I'd just popped the gobstopper in my mouth as I approached the cashier's window. In order to speak to the cashier and while fiddling with my money in my purse, I deftly slipped the huge, hard candy-ball between my teeth and there it lodged between my teeth and my cheek.  The skin of my cheek was stretched to bursting and I didn't know what to do.  Neither did the cashier, but she summoned the manager, who in turn summoned an usher who ushered me across the street to the Emergency Department of Edgware General Hospital. The doctor cranked my jaw open with a chromium device resembling a car jack, and shoved the gobstopper back from whence it came.  Then he confiscated it, and it hadn't even changed colour. He'd clearly lost sight of what it was to be a kid.

Jaw aching, but undaunted, I crossed the street with the usher again, and though I'd missed some of the feature, paid my sixpence and went to the pictures.  Mum wasn't going to know if I could help it.

Our cinema was the Gaumont-British (which we pronounced Gawmont, not knowing the word was  French).  At half past nine on the dot, the organ music swelled and up came the gigantic instrument from a pit in front of the stage. Once the levitation stopped, the fiftyish, bespectacled gentlemen who played with such gusto, turned and flashed a toothy grin at us kids. All this entertainment just for us kids - can you imagine?  We felt rich!  Next the curtains parted, the lights went down and a bouncing ball jumped from word to word on the screen as we sung our lungs out.  We started each week with:

 'We come along on Saturday morning, greeting everybody with a smile.
  We come along on Saturday morning, knowing it's well worthwhile.
  As members of the G.B. Club, we all intend to be
  Good citizens when we grow up, and champions of the free.
  We come along on Saturday morning, greeting everybody with a
         smile, SMILE, SMILE....
  Greeting everybody with a smile.'

After the sing-song, we lost ourselves for the next two hours in cliff-hanging episodes featuring our cowboy heroes, Roy Rogers, Hopalong Cassidy, Gene Autry and Tom Mix.  Then we blinked back to reality as daylight streamed in the doors, and it was over for another week.

But our fun had just started.  The most ungodly prank we could get up to required a stop at the 'chippy' for three penn'orth of chips, drowned in vinegar. Then, we'd cross the Edgware Road to the Co-op department store, where we would take the escalator up three floors.  On the return trip down, at a certain point, you could lean over and drop a chip into the brassiere on a plaster mannequin on the lingerie floor below.  We never got caught by the management, but if we didn't see them first, many a time we'd catch a clip round the ear from a grown-up riding the escalator.

After lunch on Saturday, Mum and Dad had my afternoon cut out for me. Mum had more brass than anyone I knew, and it had to be cleaned. In addition there was the set of silver fish-knives and forks which were never used, but which had to be cleaned and put back in their velvet-lined box.

Next was a walk to the newsagents to pay for the daily delivery of the Daily Mirror.  As I said, Dad was a printer, but when he was 37 he had been rejected for a job, as being too old, by the printers of the Beano. For that reason, my favourite comic was not allowed in the house, but while I was paying the papers, the newsagent let me have a 'shoofty' at the Beano.  I'd explained my predicament and he understood completely.

Sundays were different again.  Dad would play golf on summer mornings and billiards in winter.  Then he'd stop for a 'refresher' at the local and would pick up the prawns, cockles, winkles or whelks we'd be having for tea later.  Meanwhile, Mum was roasting the 'joint' and potatoes. I got to make the Yorkshire pud, and mint sauce from the mint growing by the kitchen door, and to the tunes of Billy Cotton's Band and Family Favourites, we'd put it under our belts.

Most weekday evenings would find my mum, dad and I sitting around the fire, Dad intermittently reading the paper and dozing off, Mum sewing or knitting, and me doing my homework.  Mum and I would get blotchy red mottled marks that resembled the moon's craters on our legs from sitting too close to the fire.  Our big arc-shaped Marconi wireless brought the outside world into our living-room, and we sat glued as Dick Barton performed his daring deeds with the aid of his cohorts Jock and Snowy. 'The Archers' - an everyday story of countryfolk' was another 'mustn't miss'.  But the best was 'Journey into Space' which, for effect, we'd listen to with the lights off.  Dad added his own effects.  He could make me jump out of my skin by suddenly whispering "whassat?" during this program. And as we sat rooted to the spot, nothing ever tasted so good as toast done on a fork held before the coals of the fire, with lashings of butter.

Speaking of butter; it was possible during rationing to get an extra butter ration if a member of the family was declared a vegetarian. I was our family's appointee.  Mum and I would take three buses to Harrow and back, every week, to get my supplemental ration of nuts and peanut butter at the 'nut shop'. Though I was our token vegetarian, I still ate meat at home, but school lunches were something else. The concoctions Mum devised were admirable, considering what she had to work with.  Egg sandwiches, tomato sandwiches, lettuce sandwiches, lettuce and tomato sandwiches; all finally ran their limit, so she tried pickled herring sandwiches and when all else failed, there were sugar sandwiches and the ensuing cavities.

Dad was a frugal Scot, and controlled the purse-strings.  Certain house rules prevailed, unless there was company, and only then were they lifted.  For example, the electric lights were not turned on until you could barely make out the presence of another person across the room, and heaven forbid you should ever leave a room without turning a light off.  Often as not, if we had company for tea, Mum would whisper 'F.H.B' to Dad and me.  This meant there wasn't enough to go around so 'family hold back'.

Tap dancing classes were par for the course for almost every little girl growing up in the forties, and as one of Beryl Jewell's 'little gems', I tapped and sang my way through such timeless classics as 'Ashby de la Zouche Castle Abbey', 'Hey Little Hen', 'Slow Boat to China' and "Mairsy doats and dozy doats', all decked out in tulle and sequins lovingly sewn by Mum in the sure knowledge that her pride and joy would one day be strutting her stuff at the Windmill (we-never-close) Theatre, if not the Palladium.

Summer holidays were usually spent in Combe Martin, which was an unspoiled hamlet near Ilfracombe in north Devon.  If Mrs. Darch's B & B was fully booked, we stayed at The Dolphin Inn, opposite the harbour. On a fine day, we would climb to the top of the hills 'Little Hangman' and 'Big Hangman' overlooking the harbour, or while Mum sunned herself in a deckchair, Dad and I went rock-climbing or fishing in a rock-pool with a limpet on a bent pin and a length of cotton.  We never caught anything, but I did drive a few sea-anemones crazy.  If it rained, and when didn't it, there was a skittle alley and a little cinema that showed Charlie Chaplin and Laurel & Hardy films.

By the time I was nine, Mum realized that her daughter's potential was not being tapped at Roe Green School, so she sent me to Henrietta Barnett Junior School, a girl's school in Hampstead where I quickly crossed swords with drill teacher, Miss Wells.  Compared to Miss Wells, a Marine Drill Sergeant would be like Mary Poppins.  She seemed to derive the unmost pleasure making us perform torturous contortions on the various 'apparatus'.

As if to add insult to injury for my long-suffering mother, I failed the eleven-plus exam better than anyone else in the history of the school, but without missing a beat, Mum promptly enrolled me in boarding school, far away from anyone who knew me, in the sleepy little town of Petersfield, Hampshire.  For the first time, teachers started to make sense.  Our geography teacher, Miss Humphries, with thick brown stockings, brogues and tweed, with plaited hair wound like snail-shells around each ear, managed to get it into my head that Hobart is the capital of Tasmania, while we all developed kinks in our necks from reading her writing on the board, which went from top left and dropped dramatically, like a stock market graph, to finish at bottom right.

Mr. Marks, our English teacher, made an indelible impression on me. If he caught you looking indolent, he got your attention by shooting his propelling pencil at your head, with deadly aim.  Miraculously, at the age of thirteen, mostly to the credit of Mr. Marks, I found myself top of the class,  and not at all to my mum's surprise.

I'll never forget the day television came to our house.  Mum had picked out a tall console model with a circular screen, and it arrived just in time for the Queen's Coronation.  Most of Dad's fifteen siblings and Mum's eleven  converged on our little house, with their respective spouses and offspring in tow.  Mum borrowed every available chair from the neighbours, and still we had to watch the Queen get crowned in shifts.  From the living room where the telly took pride of place, first shift moved to the kitchen, where Mum and her sisters had prepared a moveable feast, and move it we did!  With plates held aloft, the next stop was the front parlour where the third shift were still waiting their turn, and we'd fill them in on what they were missing while we devoured Cornish pasties, pickled onions and Scotch eggs.

Television hours were very short and the set was never left on willy-nilly.  The news with MacDonald Hobley and documentaries with Richard Dimbleby or Malcolm Muggeridge were family fare.  Dad made the selection of what we would watch, and Mum and I never questioned it. Actually, the most frivolous viewing in those days was the odd 'Interlude' interspersed between Dad's programmes, when the BBC would regale our senses with bullrushes blowing in a breeze in the marshes, or a slowly rotating windmill in a cornfield, set to the gentle orchestrations of a string quartet.  About the liveliest show was "What's My Line?" with the late, great Eamonn Andrews as host.  One gentleman who stumped the panelists comes to mind.  His life's vocation - a Saggar-Maker's Bottom Knocker!

The fifties was the time to be a teenager.  I had graduated from tap-dancing to ice-skating at Wembley arena.  I fancied myself as a Sonja Henie or at least Yvonne Sugden as I whirled around the ice to the strains of Perez Prado's "Cherry Pink and Apple Blossom White'.  While the girls watched, the boys got to show off as they raced at top speed to Lonnie Donegan's 'Jump down, turn around, pick a bale of cotton', then the girls tried to keep up the pace to 'Sweet Georgia Brown', the record the arena kept on hand for appearances by the Harlem Globe-trotters.  Those were the days!  Mum used to say if I wore my skating skirt any shorter I'd be wearing it for a collar.

But it wouldn't be right to say I grew up British without mentioning our pea-souper fogs.  You didn't worry about walking the streets alone - no-one could find you!  From Burnt Oak Station, if the buses had stopped running in the fog, I'd have to count the number of curbs I stepped up and down to keep count of the streets I'd crossed 'til I got to mine.  One time I had miscounted, and so similar were the adjacent cul-de-sacs,  that when I opened the front door (never locked) and yelled "S'me Mum",  a total stranger yelled back "Wrong mum love!"

My first job after school is directly responsible for my being in Canada now.  I worked as a secretary to the Manager of Wembley Stadium, and at lunchtime in the arena cafeteria, I'd sit and talk to the Canadian hockey players who'd been imported to play for the Wembley Lions.  Players like Curly Leachman, Claire Smith and coach Sonny Rost enthralled me with their Canadian accent and stories of their hometowns in Canada.  It was more than this British lass with the wanderlust could stand, and three weeks after my eighteenth birthday, I kissed Mum and Dad goodbye and took to the skies for Montreal and a whole different slice of life.

A memory shared by Heather Rohrer , on Sep 30th, 2008.

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