I was five or six when I learnt that nudity was dirty. It was strange really for while we lived in the terrace we stripped off in the yard to share a tin bath with our young cousins. I think the bath, a small oval one, belonged to Uncle Frank who was a miner and had to have a bath every day. In any event I was fully cognizant with the male anatomy before I began school.
I sat next to a little boy who offered to show me his "willie" if I would show him mine. This had no attraction since he had nothing I hadn't seen before. He then tried to bribe me with spearmint balls which I took but I didn't fulfil my part of the bargain.
One summer's day I had been playing doctors with another little girl, she was bit older than me. The lavatory at the bottom of the yard was "the doctors" and I was the patient. My Mam discovered us. I was naked, she flew into a rage and I was forbidden to play with that dirty little so and so ever again. I didn't know why she was so mad. My friend was only listening to my chest.
The winter brought aches and pains in my legs and arms - growing pains for which the only help was a foul smelling rub and warm clothes.
I wore a liberty bodice as well as a vest and my brother's outgrown jumpers. There were two, one red and one blue. Each had a collar with a black stripe round the edge. I hated them. They made me itch.
I had navy knickers with elastic bottom legs where I tucked my hankie, and brown woollen stocking. They were supposed to be held up by a band of elastic but when I ran to school I had to keep hitching them up.
It was about this time that I was forbidden to share my brother's bed. We were both walloped if we were caught in bed together which was hard on him for I had recurring nightmares and would beg him to let me share his bed.
I often wonder if the newspapers created this attitude. I know a local little girl was murdered about this time. The crime was attributed to a sex fiend who eventually proved to be her uncle. I suppose there would be much talk of incest and the need to warn children.
My brother and I were never nursed or petted but until I was five we were expected to give our parents a goodnight kiss. I noticed that my brother had stopped doing this and so demanded I be let off too.
None of the adults kissed apart from Granddad's French visitors who kissed him on the cheek. The only other kissing was at Christmas parties when kissing under the mistletoe was compulsory.
Until the Second World War, the family all gathered at Momma's on Christmas Eve when she would cook black puddings for supper. I remember flames red and blue crackling in the black leaded grate, the gleaming brass fender in the living room and the spicy smell of the pot-au-feu still lingering there. Aunts, uncles and cousins filled that tiny room to bursting point.
Momma spoke very little English and the rest very little French so the air rang with sentences begun in one language and ending in another. When I heard of the Tower of Babel, I thought it must have been very like Momma's kitchen on Christmas Eve.
Bentwood chairs lined the walls from door to door each one occupied by an aunt, uncle, mum or dad. Granddad sat in a big chair with wooden arms and Aunt Alice sat in a rocking chair in the corner. The room never seemed overheated perhaps due to the number of doors, one to the stairs, one to the parlour and one to the scullery. Momma spent the whole evening in the scullery frying up the black puddings she had made earlier in the day. They were a rich chocolate brown and were served in great crusty sandwiches to the grown ups, while we "petit chou chou" had chips. Pale soft white chips, cooked as only Momma could cook them.
In the middle of the room stood the big wooden table covered with an orange and white oilcloth. I wished we had such a cloth.
The huge pot jug had pride of place next to Granddad's cap. The uncles threw tanners (old sixpenny pieces) in the cap and the Aunts took it in turn to take the jug to the beer-off to be filled with foaming brown liquid.
After supper, every one had to do a turn. They all had their special songs. Dad used to sing, "Silver Hair and Heart of Gold" to Momma. I have never been able sing but I loved to recite and someone would lift me onto the table to do my piece. I remember saying a poem that began, "I know a little cupboard with a teeny tiny key."
Momma sang a French song about the Queen of England stepping in shit and saying "it doesn't smell good". Everyone seemed to think it was very funny and put their fingers under their noses to repeat the phrase.
The song we kids liked best was a rude one that Uncle Tom sang. It was about a crow and the chorus began "Sing brethren sing". Then followed, "And said you old bugger you can't catch me" and no one was walloped for singing it. Before the party broke up, Momma would make coffee. She ground the beans in a cast iron grinder and they drank it black.
Momma's party began the round. Then each of the Aunts took turns, year by year, to have parties on Boxing Day and New Year's Eve. They weren't as much fun as on Christmas Eve although we played lots of games like Postman's Knock and Hunt the Thimble.
We also played a game of forfeits where a long piece of string was threaded through a wedding ring and fastened into a circle. We sat round a table holding on to the string underneath. When the piano began playing we had to pass the ring along the string, when it stopped we all brought our clenched hands onto the table.
The uncle playing the piano had to guess who was holding the ring and if he guessed right you paid a forfeit (usually kissing somebody or doing something silly like standing on one leg). The grown ups played too and one of the uncles, my father's younger brother, used to kiss me on the mouth. I hated it because he smoked a pipe and his breath was foul.
When it was our turn to have a party all the cousins stayed the night so that the grown ups didn't have to leave early. We slept six or eight to a bed. The grown ups went home and an Aunt, having had too much to drink, was pushed home in a wheel barrow.
I don't remember having many presents but I did have a teddy bear although I don't remember it being given to me. I think it was probably my brother's and I inherited it. Once I was given a celluloid doll, I didn't have it long though for that Christmas a child was burnt to death and a celluloid doll had caused the blaze.
Dad came home from work took the doll from me and threw it on the fire. It blazed instantly and I was distraught. I screamed until I was slapped. The nightmare of the flames remained in my memory.
I only ever had one other doll. One with a pot face but I never had any affection for it.
We didn't get presents from mother's relations. This wasn't surprising since they were all struggling to feed and clothe their own broods but Grandma Allen (Dad's mother) gave us an extra thrupence and Aunt May one of Dad's sisters sent a parcel of books at Christmas. I have passed one of the Golden Wonder books to my daughter.
I was never at home at Grandma Allen's and only visited when Dad took me, which wasn't very often. I don't remember ever addressing her as Grandma or as anything else. We always referred to her as Grandma Allen. She was a huge woman and wore a black or dark brown dress. She quoted the bible as often as the character Dot Cotton in the television soap East Enders. Her house was opposite the school. Her table was covered with a dark green chenille cloth and the mantelpiece had a matching runner. The room seemed very dark and fearful. Her favourite saying was, "Children should be seen and not heard."
One birthday, I think Dad must have had a win on the horses, he bought my brother a red pedal car that I played with more than he did. I also recall him getting a fairy bike while I got a little metal toy pram. I threw myself into a tantrum and bashed it against the wall for I would have preferred the bike.
I was jealous of my brother especially when Dad played with him, turning him upside down. I jumped up and down begging for a go. Dad refused saying I would cry. He was right for when he gave way he hurt my arms. I thought he had done it on purpose.
My parents were very afraid of fire and mother made my baby clothes and underwear of real flannel instead of the cheaper flannelette. One of her brothers had been burnt to death and the trauma remained with her all her life. The child had been left for a few minutes while Momma went to fetch bread from the corner bakery for Granddad had to have his bread fresh daily. In old age, Mother, suffering from dementia would cry out, "Fire, fire," and bang her stick on the floor.
The often-quoted warmth and trust amongst the working class forms no part of my experience. We were outsiders, as "foreigners" always are. I deeply felt my Momma's isolation and the insults towards my Aunt. The front door was permanently locked and the back door was locked when we went out and bolted when we went to bed.
Aunt Alice gave me a big block of Bournville chocolate on my fifth or sixth birthday. I'm not sure what size it was but I thought it was enormous. It had probably been given to her as a present for she had no money to spare. I took it round with me when I went to sit on the front doorstep and I left it on the doorstep while I returned to the house to have a pee. The back yard was reached via an entry with a high wall, it could have taken only a few minutes, but when I returned the chocolate had gone and I hadn't even had a bite.
At this time we didn't have baths but were washed down in the kitchen copper after the wash water and the copper bottom had cooled down. The copper was a brick construction in the corner of the scullery, a fire was lit under it to heat the water and the whites went in after they had been ponched in a tub of soapy water. Then they were pulled out on a stick and rinsed. The whites had a final rinse in water that had a Recket's blue bag swished in it. Extra dirty bits, like Dad's collars were soaped and rubbed on the washboard. Sheets, pillowcases and Dad's collars were starched.
Starch was a powder that was mixed with cold water before boiling water was added when it changed from white to clear. Finally they were all put through the mangle in the yard.
Washday was always a bad day when Mam was at the end of her tether and we kept out of the way as much as possible. It was worse if it was wet for then the house smelt of damp clothes and windows and walls cried with steam. We didn't have a proper airer so the clothes were hung on the nursery fireguard round the fire.
The slightest misdemeanour would earn a slap. I think it was the same for most of my generation. Smacking was the normal way of disciplining a child and we were more fortunate than those whose mothers saved punishment for dad's to carry out. Mam's hands may have been hard but I'm sure men's belts were harder.
I think most of the ironing was done while I was at school or in bed. It had to be done on the table over a blanket. The irons were heated on the fire and tested by spitting on them.
Although we were still hard up, we were better off than many of our neighbours who were unemployed. Men stood on street corners, singly or in groups wearing baggy trousers with braces and collarless shirts open at the neck. One of my own uncles was unemployed from 1918 when he was demobbed until 1939.
Two others, one in the lace trade and one in hosiery were on short time. Dad had managed to get a job with the Trent Bus Company despite having a "gammy" hand.
His right hand had been trapped in a press at a factory. It left him with a claw with only the thumb mobile. As he had not actually lost a digit he received no compensation.
The owner sent a letter of sympathy to his union and promised him a job for life. He said when he returned to work he was given employment sweeping the factory floor at 10/- a week less than he had been earning. He managed to disguise his disability by wearing mitts and drove the buses until he took early retirement following a heart attack.
Mam had been trained in tailoring before she was married and took in sewing which she did on a Jones treadle machine. We still didn't live in luxury though. Dad mended our shoes and put Blakeys (segs) in the heels.
Mam boasted that she had passed the school-leaving exam and began earning at thirteen while Dad had to stay at school until he was fourteen.
A big treat was when one of Dad's friends went poaching rabbits. He would throw the rabbit over the wall into the yard and come round later for the money. We had a nail inside the back door on which to hang rabbits by their hind legs. The skin was peeled off the hind legs first and finally easing it over the head. The rabbit was browned with onions and stewed with prunes. My brother and I shared the backbone and the head and we squabbled over the brains.
Another delicacy at this time was tripe, which Mam cooked with onions in water, adding flour and milk to thicken it. This was the way Dad liked it. I hated it, preferring it cooked as a brown stew the way Momma did it. I didn't like milk at all and we had many a battle to get me to eat milk puddings. When Mam's back was turned Harry would swop dishes with me after he had eaten most of his.
We had a small bottle of milk at school and I would do anything to get rid of it. Later I spent my milk money at the local sweet shop.
We didn't have meat very often and chicken was a luxury that we had at Christmas.
My family were very honest. Dad had no time for those who stole from work although he emphasised the penalty of getting the sack and losing your good name more than righteousness but like most people he considered game to be God given and every man's right. He was also very anti buying things that had "fallen off the back of a lorry," it was years before I understood the phrase referred to stolen goods.
Most of my clothes were made by Mam to be serviceable, skirts out of old trouser legs, and dresses out of odd bits. I did have one dress for the Sunday school anniversary that I thought was marvellous. Aunt Alice made it from a bag of net bits from the factory it was made in layers of frills and I wanted to wear it forever. I danced and twirled in the backyard imagining myself to be a fairy.
My brother and I were sent to Sunday school morning and afternoon although Mam and Dad never went to church except for weddings and funerals. I enjoyed going and I especially liked the decorated texts we were given to take home. I learned them by heart and was often chosen to read them aloud.
Sunday school outings were the highlight of the summer. We played tug o'war and ran races. I liked the sack race and the egg and spoon but I never did well in the three legged because I went too fast and pulled my partner over.
Cakes were a rare treat and the Sunday school tea served iced buns but you had to eat the bread first. We all watched for the signal and made a grab for the buns.
People often bemoan the demise of the Sunday school influence but I regret to say that although they instilled a belief in God in me they did not have any influence on my childhood behaviour. Of course I learnt the Ten Commandments and that God would punish your sins but like many children of today, I was amoral. The story of Adam and Eve gave me a fear of death but I comforted myself with the thought that the world might come to an end before I died and then I would be spared from dying.
One day I ran to Momma with a bleeding knee, sobbing I said, "that God has tripped me up" I don't recall what crime I thought I was being punished for although I suspect it was lying for I was a pathological liar.
I went to the Salvation Army's Saturday afternoon Magic Lantern shows until they stopped giving free oranges. The shows were uninspiring and only worth enduring for the orange for we had oranges only on Pancake Day and in our stocking at Christmas.
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