A little bit of Scotch mist

So many photos of my dad as a young man featured a sporty car (or a motorbike and sidecar) and he was often accompanied by my mum (and even his mother, who seemed to be a constant chaperone). Before I was born, dad and mum belonged a group called  “The Gypsy Motoring Club”. They and their friends would zoom around the countryside, participating in organised trips, time trials and treasure hunts. These activities came to an end upon my arrival, but driving out into the countryside on a Sunday was still our family treat. The shop was open 6 days a week and dad never let up. I can remember him often having to jump up from the table and rush downstairs to serve customers because the shop didn’t close for lunchtime.

I do have memories of standing behind the car with the boot down (yes down not up) and our big picnic box which just fitted in. Sadly, missing from the trips that I can remember, was Sheila, my parents’ beautiful Irish (red) setter which appeared on their photos but died before I was born. One of my older cousins was especially fond of her and, later, told me many stories. Apparently, she was a very giddy dog, who never quite grew up and often returned home in a very smelly condition due to her love of rolling in cow pats! This (the photos, not the cow pats) has just reminded me of how many photos I’ve seen of my parents out and about in the countryside, posing (sometimes in very silly poses) with dad’s two sisters and their husbands and children. Lovely family photos which have made me smile over the years and have helped me tell you – my children – about your grandparents.

I have real memories of one very early holiday, touring Scotland. This was a place that mum and dad (mostly with grandma) often visited. I was a small child – maybe 4 – but I have 3 very vivid memories. One was being lifted down from a ferry boat into the arms of a crew member in a small rowing boat as we visited the island of Iona. Iona is a small island in the Inner Hebrides, famous for its abbey. Part of the abbey, built in the Middle Ages, still remains and it is still a popular destination for tourists. The sail, from the small town of Oban, takes you past the beautiful houses of Tobermory (or Ballamory as thousands of parents know it today) and the atmospheric Fingall’s Cave, before arriving at Iona, where the only way to land is by transferring to a much smaller vessel. I made the same trip with friends as a twenty-year old, but that is another story! My dad told me the story that there were some American tourists on our Iona trip and, being interested in history, they were asking “Who was Bonnie Prince Charlie’s father?” It seems nobody knew the answer – except me. I whispered to my dad that I didn’t understand why nobody could say – that “it’s the Duke of Edinburgh of course”! My second memory was being in a bed screaming,  because mum and dad had gone out and left me with my grandma. They never went out together, even though they had a potential live-in babysitter. I never asked why but I realise now that I am showing distinct signs of having “only-child” syndrome! My third memory was of the moment, during our drive home, when I realised that my little plush dog, Ricky, was not with us and dad obligingly turned back to Callander to collect him. Thanks dad!

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Austerity: Post-war style

I’ve always thought of my parents’ generation and their parents’ generation as being the ones who had seen the big events and huge changes during their lives but I think that there have been tremendous things – both good and bad – happening during my lifetime. So I’ll try to remember them as they come along during this story. There were several such moments in the first few years of my life but I don’t have any personal memories of them.

A few days ago, I talked about the terrible winter which was in full swing when I arrived home to our little flat above the shop. The country was freezing while struggling to get back on its feet, less than two years after the end of World War 2. I was lucky enough to be one of the early beneficiaries of the national health service which came into being on 5 July 1948. When I was looking up the date for this event, I was interested to read that even in its first year of existence the NHS was suffering from a shortage of nurses and had cost £248 million to run, almost £140 million more than had been originally estimated. No surprise then that it is in the difficulties it finds itself in today. The resources needed have always been underestimated and, I guess, its users have always expected more of it than they were prepared to fund. My grandma, who lived with us in our tiny flat, did not welcome the coming of the NHS, which she took to be yet another socialist plot conjured up by Attlee’s government. She refused to join and continued to pay for her doctor’s services until my father signed her up without her knowing.

One welfare benefit that I know we didn’t benefit from was the so-called “Family Allowance”. In these early days it wasn’t given to the first child and I remember that my mum was always rather bitter about it. It doesn’t seem fair, as it is the preparation for the first child which was and still is, very expensive. My mum also had very definite views about mothers (and even married women in general) having to go out to work. She had obviously worked in the early days of her marriage during the war but, to her, one of the most awful thing to happen to a married woman was to have to go out work. After my dad died and she was in receipt of a widows pension of about £4 a week, she sometimes used to say, anxiously, “I think I’m going to have to get a job” but we seem to have managed and it never came to that. I wonder how she would have felt about today’s women, most of whom would hate to stay at home and not have a job.

I’ve been trying to think of what my earliest memory could be. I’m not one of those who claims to remember things that happened when they were just a baby. But I do remember – Rationing!

In the deep midwinter

So, it’s 26 January 1947. I’m told it was one of the worst winters in living memory. But of course my memory doesn’t stretch back that far. Good old Google tells me that one of the cold spells started on 21 January, so I guess there must have been some difficulty in getting my mum to hospital. I was born in St Luke’s Hospital in Bradford. The main buildings of this hospital formed the infirmary of the Bradford Union Workhouse (completed 1852). It was not luxury, obviously!

Everyone was also dealing with the difficult post-war period. In1945, Labour had won a general election and on 1 January 1947 had nationalised the coal industry and created the National Coal Board. Still, due to a lack of planning for a possible cold winter, there was a coal shortage and, together with food rationing, we all had a pretty tough time.

Health-wise, the NHS was taking longer to be born than I was and, apparently, it was practice at that time for new mothers to stay in hospital for two weeks, having bed rest. So again it must’ve been difficult for my dad to visit us in hospital. We were one of the lucky families who had a car but as I’ve been told that snow was so deep that people had to walk on the walls I’m not sure if the roads will have been open. Anyway I presume that at the beginning of February I arrived home to our cycle shop (perhaps strapped to the handlebars of a bicycle) where the other person waiting to meet me was my Grandma.

Before I start moving forward from January 1947 it’s time to explain who my mum and dad were and where they came from. Phyllis and Cuthbert (whoever would call themselves by their middle name, Cuthbert, when their first name was a perfectly normal John?) had been married since November 1939 and had known each other for many many years before that. I believe I was their first and only baby. No-one ever mentioned miscarriages or stillbirths but then, they wouldn’t. So I have no explanation as to why it was more than seven years after their marriage that I was born. My belief through teenage years that it was because Dad was doing war work in a local factory through the night, while Mum did similar during the day was poopooed by a kindly colleague who assured me that “people will always find time for a little love”.

Let’s start with Phyllis. Born in August 1905, she was the youngest of five sisters. Emma (known as Emmie) was the oldest, born in 1891. Her father, Thomas, was my grandma’s (also Emma) first husband who sadly died at a very young age only two or three years after they were married. I haven’t been able to find out what happened to him, although I know that he was farm labourer. Grandma Emma later married my grandfather Frederick and had four more daughters, Bessie, Violet, Jessie and Phyllis. Frederick had been a baker at some point and, possibly, a soldier. He was born in Lincolnshire in 1863. Emma was also born in Lincolnshire in 1869. By the time mum was born Frederick worked on the railways and they lived near Wakefield. Bessie was born in 1896, Violet in 1901, Jessie in 1904 and Phyllis in 1905. The girls all worked in the local mill when they left school.

I think I’ll leave dad’s early story until tomorrow. It includes desertion and, possibly, bigamy, a drunken first wife and illegitimacy so will take a bit of explaining.

In the meantime, I’m digesting the final episode of “The Plague” from BBC4. Not an easy watch, what with the pustules, the Spanish Inquisition and a pre-NHS doctor who shouted for “lard” when the hero was brought in close to death. He patched him up and bathed his wounds with a mixture of egg and turpentine. BBC4, my staple Saturday night fare (sub-titles and all) was on hold last night while I went to a party. I’m coming to terms with the fact that BBC1 has started has started showing an equally gripping but totally different, Saturday night serial. “Killing Eve” is fast, edgy and has me hooked already. How will I juggle the two?

Life is a bowl of soup!

I’m full of enthusiasm!  Resurrected with the help of my cousin. We spent a few days away and, as usual, we meandered down memory lane.  We grew up together, more like sisters than cousins. Two girls, born just a few weeks apart and both only children. 

We laughed at the things we remembered and filled in the blanks that the other had forgotten.  We laughed a lot! Into the early hours of the morning.  We talked about the blanks that we can no longer fill in, because the people with the answers are no longer with us and how we don’t want our own children to be in the dark as they grow older.  So, I’ve decided to write this blog for my three children.

Writing a blog?  Well, I keep a diary when I go on holiday.   In fact I’ve just been reading all those diaries written since 2004 when I did my first big trip abroad.  I wish I’d kept the diary that I wrote when I was a teenager and totally in love with a boy I worked with.  You don’t think you’ll ever want to read those again or maybe they are so embarrassing that they just have to be got rid of.  I’m excited to be going away again in a few weeks’ time. To India. It’s sort of a goal, booked as soon as I got the all clear after having a kidney removed (on my birthday too!), because I had to cancel this same trip earlier in the year. I shall be taking my pen and notebook with me as usual.

I’m feeling a similar enthusiasm about telling the story of my family for my children and grandchildren.

Is it over the top to put 12 year old Calvados in soup because I forgot to buy cider?  Well, the leek, apple and spring greens soup tasted very good.