Chapter 2, Sleeping under the high notes
Staying with Gran – Mum’s mum during the war we slept under the grand piano to save us from the bombs. We often wondered if a bomb did hit the house whether the piano would go sliding away across the lino, leaving us exposed. We used to argue when I was made to sleep under the high notes because my feet stuck out in the air, and I thought they would get squashed when the ceiling fell in. (Ceilings did that rather a lot in those days) Often we could smell burning as neighbouring houses were set on fire. And then Gran would start cooking the breakfast and the smell would be of burnt toast.
She was a lovely Grandmother – round and cuddly, with a big bum, piano legs and long plaits wound around her head that she would let us unpin and comb out. The unplaited hair was crinkly and very very long, so that we could try out exotic arrangements, turning her into a fairy princess. She never minded what we did with it. When she was a girl she had had beautiful thick auburn hair, and was often asked to be a model for the hairdresser next door to where she worked in Hanover Square, for a very posh French lingerie shop. She would sometimes talk a bit of French to us, though I know she’d left school when she was ten.
The kitchen at Gran’s was a magical place to us – as soon as we arrived on a visit we would make straight for the green dresser to get out a big box of coloured pencils and scraps of paper saved from smoothed-out wrapping or envelopes and settle down at the plush-covered table, greeting Teddy Tail with caution, Gran’s predatory black and white cat.
I don’t know how she managed it, but my grandmother was able to produce gargantuan meals even during the worst of the rationing on an antiquated gas stove which you could smell when you came in the house. No modern equipment – no fridge, antique gas cooker, and the washing was done in an enamel bowl and then taken outside to be put through the mangle. It was a treat to be allowed to turn the handle, pulling the flattened clothes out, learning the hard way to avoid squashed fingers.
Grandad was usually a very quiet, shy person, very deaf by the time I really knew him. A small, dapper figure in black jacket and striped trousers for ‘business’ in an insurance company, or flannel bags, collarless shirt and braces in his wonderful garden, he would work away all weekend producing all the vegetables for the family. He was particularly fond of phlox, and grew many varieties. Until very recently I have always had a descendent of some of them in my gardens. He never earned more than £3 a week in his entire life, yet he kept his wife and five children in reasonably comfortable respectability, owing nothing to anyone.
On family occasions he would come out of his shell, singing with gusto songs bordering on the bawdy. His favourite was the cheeky ‘Johnny with his Cam-ar-ah,’ who photographed the goings on of people high and low. I wish I could remember the words now.
Another unexpected side to his character was his gambling. A shilling a week was devoted to the pools. Absolute hush was demanded each Saturday night while Len Murray read the football results on the radio with deliberate rise and fall: ‘West Bromwich Albion one,’ deep and low, ‘Tottenham Hotspur Three, on a rising note.’ He would also have the occasional flutter on the horses, and from his successes would come the money to buy some quite valuable jewellery for my Grandmother, hence the snake bracelet with its matching ruby ring which I eventually inherited, along with other good pieces now dispersed around the family. I also inherited a tea set for 12, white with pink rosebuds, which had been my Great Grandmother’s pride and joy. It had been bought by Grandad for his mother with his first wages. A very generous man.
Also living at Gran’s house was my Auntie Winnie – spinster younger sister of Mum and the middle child of the five. She was unkindly described by Dad as Twitter and Bisted. A great one for spoonerisms and puns, my Dad. It’s true that in those days she was very cranky. A natural blonde with wispy hair, a big behind and thick spectacles, she dressed exactly like Gran, in very elderly clothes, corseted firmly in her formal brown or navy dresses, with a lace modesty vest tucked down the front to hide her ample bosom. She wore ‘Granny’ shoes with clumpy Cuban heels, pointy toes and a single laced bit across the instep. Cranky she may have been, but she played the piano like an angel and gave me my first piano lessons. She worked as a secretary in a firm which made pianos and according to my Mum she was hopelessly in love with her married ‘Chief.’ In later life I learned to appreciate her even more, as I realised how she had sacrificed her own life in order to look after her parents. In the end she had exactly six months of retirement before dying at 61 from cancer, surviving her mother by only a year.
And then there was Aunty Joan – the youngest of the 5 siblings – married to my favourite Uncle away in the army at Catterick Camp. Uncle Bob’s parents were French though he was born in London. His voice and accent had a romantic quality which had all the females of the family drooling over him. I am told that at their wedding, in Brompton Oratory,
when I heard the sanctus bell tinkle three times, I shouted out “That’s the telephone.” In my defence, I was probably aged 2 at the time, and a very unreliable bridesmaid.
On the rare occasions we were all able to be together we had marvellous concerts on that lovely grand piano: Bob and Joan sang ballads, Winnie played Chopin – I can never hear the Fantaisie Impromptu without seeing her sitting at the piano in the back room at the grandparents’ house, with the trains passing every few minutes on the elevated line at the bottom of the garden. Mum would play Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsody (her only party piece). Gran sang Tell Me Pretty Maiden, are there any more at home like you? and Alice Blue Gown. Sylvia and I were required to ‘give us a toon’. Regular requests would be My Grandfather’s Clock and Noel Coward’s London Pride. Grandad of course would keep us entertained for hours with his naughty songs. We always finished with the sentimental Bless this House, when Gran would dissolve into tears.
I don’t know where all that music came from, as with a big family, there had never been money to spare for piano or singing lessons. The two uncles, Charlie and Horace were away in the army.
Sylvia and I would go to the station to meet Grandad, Winnie and Joan, when they came home from ‘business’ – it was always called that, never ‘work’. The Metropolitan and District Lines ran behind the gardens in Gran’s road, high up on an embankment. To get to the station we had to go under the railway by a lovely echo-y subway, and we would play there for ages while waiting, shouting and running to make the echo. What a nuisance we must have been! The other side of the railway, Harrow School was just across the fields, and the sound of church bells will always take me straight back there, to summer mornings walking with Gran and the Aunts to Mass in Harrow Catholic Church. I thought that Church was beautiful, with lots of white marble.
One summer’s day I went for a walk. I was six years old. It was very early in the morning. Nobody else was awake. So I slipped quietly out and skipped happily along the street until I came to an alley that led I knew not where. I was in an exploring mood, so I wandered down it, staring about me, smelling the pungent scent of privet either side. The alley led to – joy of joys – the recreation ground. I spent a happy time having a go on swings, roundabout and slide that usually were too crowded with bigger children to be a pleasure to the little wimp that I was then. Sated with spin and swing, I set off down the field. I had never been this far before. I found at the bottom a grubby stream – more like a ditch really – but to me it seemed like a great adventure to wade in and splosh around. A tiny bridge enticed me to explore further, and I managed to crawl under the pipe which led the stream under the road. Emerging on the other side, I realised that I hadn’t a clue as to where I was. Nor which way was home. The feeling of triumph and freedom began to give way to anxiety and fear. Tears threatened. I scrambled up a steep bank onto the road. What a surprise – it was the road I walked every day on my way to school. So I ran home, eager to recount the adventure. Nobody was up, and I hadn’t been missed. What an anticlimax!
When I was just five, Sylvia and I changed schools, to go on the ‘bus to the Holy Cross Convent in New Malden., I was still persona non grata with my sister and her friends, but I didn’t mind by then as I soon found friends of my own age.
We had been taken on the tube up to Selfridges in the West End to buy our school uniform. It was quite an adventure, acquiring bottle green box pleated gym slips each with a plaited and fringed girdle, white blouses and green and grey striped ties, green felt hats like pudding basins with brims, and raincoats . Being very small for my age, everything swamped me but Mum was glad there was room for me to grow. How she managed to get together enough clothing coupons for all that lot I’ll never know. She probably swapped tea or eggs or something with neighbours.
I found the whole experience terrifying, the shop was so enormous, and London so dangerous, with bombed buildings everywhere, some still smoking as we went past on the bus Blackened facades, strange unsupported walls sticking up from the rubble, the reek of burning, broken sewers and gas mains, all contributed to my fear. Of course the gas mains were immediately shut off after a raid, which meant that everyone in the neighbourhood lost their gas as well. No cooking dinner then!
In the tube stations there were lashed-up wooden bunks against the curved walls all along the platforms, and Mum told us that that was where the local people slept at night, using the underground stations as air raid shelters. They must have saved thousands of lives
At the new school I was put into a class called Montessori Two, because I could read, but I was soon in trouble. I used to go off into a dream while waiting for each girl in the class to read out something from the blackboard. It was so boring. But on one occasion, I ‘came to’ and spoke out loud the words in front of me: The Little Mouse Ran – engraved on my memory because of the consequences. Our lovely teacher, Sister Catherine, became an ogre before my eyes. ‘Oh you think you’re so clever Vivienne’. I didn’t have a clue what she was going on about – it was correct wasn’t it? ‘How dare you upset Madeleine like that?’ Presumably that was the slow coach everyone was waiting to hear read.. ‘We’ll see how clever you are’ and without further ado I was taken upstairs to the third year class, all 7-year-olds, called Transition. A muttered conference between Sister Catherine and the other teacher resulted in me being given a sum book with pages of sums to do, three figure numbers to add up. Now I hadn’t yet learned ‘hundreds, tens and units’ or ‘five and carry one’ techniques, so I just wrote down the answers like this:
and I made the answer: 131211
‘Now perhaps you’ll realise you’re not so clever’ said the teacher as she explained where I had gone wrong. I shrank into myself, feeling about an inch high and hardly dared open my mouth in school for the next year or so.
We went twice a week to the local Granada cinema, or sometimes The Odeon. We called it going to the pictures. You had to be there early, as there was always a queue. Mum would buy three seats in the one and nines, (one shilling and ninepence). These were in the middle of the stalls, considered the best if you couldn’t afford the two and threes (two shillings and threepence) in the front of the dress circle upstairs. The cinemas were beautiful – what I now know to have been art deco outside, and a great deal of gilding and red plush inside.
You really had value for money in those days, as there would be a ‘second feature’ film – nowadays called a B movie – a cartoon of Mickey Mouse or Bugs Bunny, the Pathe Newsreel to keep us up to date with what was happening in the war – there was no television during that period. Then, after a short interval to go to the loo, the magical organ rose up from the floor and a man would play all the latest tunes before disappearing back down below. Then we’d get publicity films and trailers. I was obsessed at that time by an advertisement for our local Tesco – a tiny shop with all the goods piled on the pavement outside. The still picture showed it illuminated in a shaft of sunshine, and it was accompanied by Richard Adinsall’s Warsaw Concerto. If I ever hear that concerto nowadays, that sunlit image comes back. The main feature would follow and we must have seen just about every film produced at that time. Sylvia and I particularly liked a child star called Margaret O’Brien who had long neat plaits. Naturally our hair was then grown long enough to plait in imitation.
The public library was a magical place to us. From the time that I could read, we went to the library every day they were open, borrowing as many books as allowed. Our tastes were eclectic. E Nesbitt and Enid Blyton, Arthur Ransome and Malcolm Saville, were firm favourites and Kipling, Robert Louis Stevenson, John Buchan, Jane Austin, Charlotte Brontë rubbed shoulders with the sentimental What Katy Did books, Little Women, Anne of Green Gables and the nauseatingly sweet Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm. We loved adventure stories and stories of boarding schools, such as the Chalet School by Eleanor M Brent-Dyer and the Abbey Girls stories of Elsie Oxenham. We often wrote our own if we were short of something to read, though we had absolutely no first-hand knowledge. It would be fun to re-read them now and see just how naïve we were. I remember one longish illness when I was about 10, when I devoured the whole of Mum’s huge book of Russian Fairy Tales, plus a load of Somerset Maugham, Pearl Buck’s The Good Earth and Mary Webb’s Precious Bane.
Once started on a book I could not be stopped. I’d pick up my library books in New Malden near the convent, read all the way on the bus, and then walk the mile or so home reading. For no reason that I can remember I used to walk backwards, instinctively knowing when I needed to turn round to cross the side roads. Neighbours used to complain to Mum that I would be run over, but it didn’t stop me. Frequently I would have finished both books by the time I arrived home and then have nothing to read until the following evening. That was when I started on the adult books
By this time, there were fewer raids – certainly during the daytime, but we still had air raid drill where we sat in the cloakroom with our heads among the coats, and practised with our gas masks. During the war no-one could go anywhere without this horrible contraption, designed to save us in the case of gas attacks. It smelled horribly rubbery when you put the strap over your head and pulled the mask to your face, with an elephant-like nose tube. I could never breathe properly in mine, so I didn’t see how it could save my life. But it was fun to talk into them and try to interpret what people were saying into their masks, in peculiar muffled voices.
All this time, we hardly saw Dad. Occasionally he would get an unexpected 24-hour pass and hitch a lift home – to be greeted ecstatically by all of us. Except once: he came home with a horrid little ginger moustache, and Mum refused to kiss him until he went and shaved it off! He didn’t even have ginger hair, so why the moustache was ginger remains a mystery of genetics.
On a three-day leave, he would sometimes bring friends home – friends who had no family here, like Canadian George – the best looking man I ever met, and a great favourite with us because he would give us all his sweet ration and tell wonderful stories.
Then there was Len. He was a hit straightaway, as he could play absolutely anything on the piano with great panache and ragtime rhythm. He taught us to play ‘Cruising Down the River’ on one visit, and I can still remember all the words.
In the summer of 1944, I was in the kitchen at home ‘helping’ Mum cook lunch when the delivery man knocked at the back door. In those days, food might have been in short supply, but you could have it delivered! An excited man in a brown coat shouted to Mum, ‘put the news on, put the news on’
‘Why, what’s happened?’ and Mum switched on the wireless and we all listened as ‘the News’ told us that the Second Front had been launched. As usual, I had no idea what this was, and I was amazed when Mum and the delivery man started to waltz wildly about the room, cheering and laughing. What had happened was that the D-Day landings had started on the Normandy beaches, not far from where I live now. Everyone thought that the war was nearly over, but as Winston Churchill so rightly said of a different triumph, ‘Now this is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. but it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.’
…to be continued