Thursday 6 August 2009

Learn by heart . . .

At the 'Festival of Britain, 1951. I was seven years old, my brother Brian was thirteen and wearing his first long trousers with his Grammar School blazer (Sir Joseph Williamson's Mathematical School for Boys, no less! In those days boys were not allowed to wear long trousers at the Math school until they were in the 6th form aged 17 so he was being quite daring!) Our older sister Beryl, then 22, had taken us to the Festival as a treat.The principal exhibition site, where this photograph was taken, was on the South Bank of the River Thames, near Waterloo Station. Six years after the end of the Second World War much of London was still in ruins and redevelopment was sorely needed.The Festival was intended to make Britons feel that recovery and progress were being made and to lift their spirits and also to celebrate the centenary of the Great Exhibition of 1851. It was devised by Gerald Barry and Herbert Morrison, deputy leader of the Labour Party (and Peter Mandelson's maternal grandfather) There were other exhibitions in East London, South Kensington and Glasgow's Kelvin Hall. There were also travelling exhibitions and major festivals in many other cities across the land.
The Festival of Britain emblem was designed by Abram Games. This is from the front cover of the South Bank Exhibition Guide, 1951 (image from Wikipedia)
My parents used to encourage me to 'learn by heart' when I was very small. I remember reciting a shopping list to my mother before trotting off to carry out the errands. I must have been about five years old for I had not yet started school and could not read. The list was never very long – after all, there's a limit to how much a small girl can carry. The greengrocer was at the far end of the street and I would collect potatoes and carrots there and move on to the baker's shop. It was so difficult to resist breaking off pieces of the crust to eat as I continued my journey. I was scolded for doing that though not severely. 'Home and Colonial' might be on my list of shops and the boxes of broken biscuits smelt so good. If I had to buy sugar the grocer would take his silver scoop and pour the sugar onto the scales to measure the required amount. Then the sugar would be transferred to a bag made from thick blue paper.
I wasn't expected to buy meat - indeed it may still have been on ration - but when I went into the butcher's shop with my mother I was always fascinated by the sawdust on the floor and tempted to draw patterns in it with my toe. Perhaps the sawdust masked the smell of raw meat but butcher's shops today seem to have a much stronger odour than they used to. The last place I passed before reaching the shop door was the public house next to my home. I don't remember it ever being particularly rowdy but I disliked the smell of stale beer and smoke from there. It seems incredible now – I certainly would neither expect nor allow any four-year-old for whom I had responsibility to go shopping unaccompanied. In fact my children were considerably older before they were allowed out of my sight other than to go to school but it's a faster-moving world now.
When my father left the Royal Navy he didn't want to spend the rest of his working life in Chatham Dockyard and decided his independence lay in small business and so he and my mother bought a newsagent's and confectioner's shop in the High Street of an unprepossessing town in Kent. (It was not Chatham – as the saying goes, 'Kent is the Garden of England and Chatham's the dustbin in it.') We lived in the flat above the shop. There was only one entrance and we had to walk through the shop to reach the stairs to the flat. All the shopkeepers knew each other and everyone knew me since I was a familiar sight skipping along singing. There was little traffic on the roads then and the few vehicles there were moved rather slowly and ponderously. There were many eyes to see me and keep watch over me and I was safe.
I recall the first day I went to Infant school in Rochester. My mother and I set off across the bridge and through Rochester High Street past Dale's grocery and Robey's shoe shop to turn right past Buckett's baker's shop where we sometimes used to buy delicious fresh meringues or other delicacies. It seemed a long way but was probably only two miles. Eventually we reached the school and my mother left me. I cannot recollect whether she met me after school – I think she must have done so that I could learn the return route. The next morning and every morning after that I walked alone to school and back again. It was the normal thing to do in those days when parents were obliged to remain outside and were rarely invited onto the premises.
I cannot tell whether this early training was 'good' for me but I have always been an observant person and my memory is sharp.
My parents encouraged all of us to find pleasure in books, both fact and fiction. I used to learn poetry and songs and regale various trade acquaintances of my father with them. It was quite common for me to call into one of the shops on my way home and recite or sing the latest thing I had been taught or to read from my current book. The habit of learning verse remained with me through my formative years and I can still 'proclaim' some Shakespearean speeches but there are two little poems that have stuck in my mind. One I learnt from my sister's book of poetry at home; the second was taught me by my mother and I subsequently taught it to my children and some of the children in some of my classes.
The first is incomplete and I have never been able to trace it. I guess it's rather banal but it appealed to me as a little girl.
'A little grey mouse, so plump and sleek,
Crept out from I know not where,
And betwixt the rails of the iron road
Sat nibbling its dainty fare.
A paper of crumbs most happily found
And by somebody cast aside,
Did now for the tiny bright-eyed thing
A heaven-sent meal provide.'
I don't know any more of this so I can't tell if the 'little grey mouse' came to a sticky end or not – probably not, I think! I puzzled for a long time over 'the rails of the iron road' and imagined a tarmac road with railings to the sides.
The second verse is about manners:
'There's a magic little word
That works wonders when it's heard
Though it sometimes seems to lose itself with ease,
But there's such a charm about it
That we cannot do without it
And that magic little word
Is simply – Please.'


  1. What a lovely photo, you both look so cute and well-scrubbed!

    Interesting to read about your younger days, things are so different now. I remember the sawdust on the butcher's floor. I wonder when they stopped doing that?

  2. Thank you! I guess the sawdust went when Health and Safety reared its sometimes ridiculous head!

  3. You and your brother look adorable in your dressy clothes. I loved reading your memories of growing up in a safer world than today's world. Walking 2 miles to school by yourself sounds incredible! I'm 4 years younger than you, but I always walked to school, too, in the 1950s in southern California. It was through a residential neighborhood, about three quarters of a mile or less. But when we moved to a house 3 miles from the school I attended when I was 12, we all rode the school bus to school. It's almost unheard of today for kids to walk to school unless they live really close to it. This is a wonderful post!


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