V. Out of School


While at primary school, my out-of-school life was integrated with my home and school life, since I spent all of my time in my home town and almost everyone of my age went to the same school. I also enjoyed any opportunity to write creatively, producing poems and short stories which owed much to the style of Enid Blyton, and writing a play which was produced by the local Brownie Pack. However, once I reached the more academic High School this ceased, and in fact I did not begin writing outside of my academic work again until I left University. Once at the High School, I also saw little of my classmates out of school, due to a combination of my geographical isolation and my parents' low income preventing me from travelling and participating in social events. And although I became on good terms with the local girls with whom I travelled to school after my first year, we never became close. Therefore, only very occasionally did I go cycling or swimming with my travelling companions after school, or meet up with a friend from dancing school or from one of the rural villages between my home and the school. And while I was friendly with many of the girls at the High School, they all lived too far away for me to socialise with them outside of it, severely limiting our relationships (in any case, all of my friends had other, closer friends). This was to become particularly frustrating as I grew older, since the last train home from the market town where the school was situated departed at 10pm, preventing me from going to the cinema, discos or parties even when I had a job and could afford these.
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Instead, during the summer I spent a great deal of time on the beach. Before I went to school, my mother was not employed and I literally grew up on the beach, since my mother loved to sunbathe or to collect shells which she would later use in craft work, and she also met with many of her friends there. (In the early years, she probably also welcomed the escape from my grandmother.) Like my parents' friends, we had a beach hut which provided shelter when it rained, and so for five months or more of the year we spent most of every free day by the sea, whatever the weather. However, books were very much part of the experience: my mother would read to me and my sister in the afternoons; and later on bought Ladybird primers for me to read to myself. When I went to school, I then took out my own books from the local library, and spent a great deal of time wrapped up in cardigans reading on the cliffs (the shore was often wind-swept, and I felt the cold badly). I was not particularly friendly with the other children on the beach, many of whom were summer visitors who did not mix with children outside their parents' social set, with the rest being primary school friends who later rejected me for going to the "snob school".
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I did, though, long for a boat - many local people sailed - eventually saving up enough money to buy an inflatable dinghy during my last years at primary school. This was my pride and joy for about two years, when I spent most of the summers rowing up and down the coast, but it perished when vandals broke into the beach hut one winter and set fire to it. I also enjoyed surfing on a polystyrene body board and generally playing about in the water (although I was never a particularly keen swimmer), shrimping and scrambling on the cliffs.
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For the rest of the year, social activities were limited to the Girl Guides, music lessons and riding lessons. The Girl Guides had, of course, been the most popular British girls' organisation since they were founded at the beginning of the century and this is reflected in many girls' school stories, including the Chalet School series; I therefore had high expectations of them from my fictional reading. Having previously been a "Brownie", I joined my local company during my last year at primary school, becoming a member of the Swallow Patrol. We met once a week in the local Red Cross hall, led by a local nurse and later by one of the primary school teachers.
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I found Guides hardgoing at first, particularly when we went away to camp for a week during the summer holiday before I went to the High School. I was extremely homesick, having never been away from my family before, and I was also teased mercilessly, since my mother had insisted that I sleep on a camp bed rather than on the ground because of my history of poor health. (The teasing may also have been related to the fact that I was about to start at the "snob school".) As I grew older, though, I became a competent Guide, eventually becoming Patrol Leader of the Swallows. I enjoyed the outdoor and practical activities on offer, and particularly looked forward to the subsequent camps, since we had very few other holidays during my childhood. Then as now, Guides offered girls the opportunity to participate in a wide range of activities which are more generally limited to boys, and to explore team work and leadership in a completely girl-centred environment with military overtones.
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Eventually I became a "Queen's Guide", which required me to pass a wide range of tests. That I got so far in the organisation is, I think, due to a combination of factors. First, I enjoyed the personal challenges and the project work involved. Then my mother had always insisted that we finish anything which we started, and to become a Queen's Guide was as far as one could go in the organisation. Most importantly, in my early teens the Guides filled a gap in my social life and offered me opportunities which I was unable to find elsewhere. As soon as I had been presented with my award, though, at the age of fifteen, I left the organisation, despite invitations to join the Ranger Guides (a sister organisation for older girls), to become a youth leader and to assist with the Brownies. By this time I had other options, and had no further interest in an organisation which was monarchist and religious in its ethos - if not necessarily in its practice - and which, despite its benefits, failed to live up to its fictional promise.
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I also began taking violin and piano lessons when I was at primary school, since a council-administered test pronounced me to be extremely musical (I suspect that my hearing developed to compensate for my poor eyesight). These lessons were taught to me by a middle-aged couple who lived in a terraced cottage close to my home, with the husband teaching me the piano and his wife the violin. I enjoyed the broad music curriculum at my primary school, particularly the singing, but I had no particular talent for either the violin or the piano and was mortified when I had to play the violin in a pupils' concert at the local Methodist Church hall. Eventually I was glad when the long journey to and from my High School meant that it was impossible to fit the lessons in, and was relieved when I was finally allowed to give up learning the violin at school too.
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My riding lessons were more sporadic, but since my father had grown up on a farm and had always ridden as a child, he wanted us to have the opportunity to learn, and found the money when he could. At one point I had a few informal lessons in a local field, but found it difficult to control the pony. I was a great animal lover and we kept many pets at home, but the sheer size of the animal frightened me. After it had bolted twice as well as bitten me, I decided to stop. Later we briefly went hacking at a proper riding school a few miles away, which I did enjoy. However, my father was made redundant shortly afterwards and was then unemployed for nearly a year, and we never returned.
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(In fact, my parents always had to struggle to pay for our out-of-school activities, since their income was very low. My mother ran a playgroup, while my father sold insurance door-to-door. Insurance agents had to buy their own "round" of customers, and due to lack of capital, my father's round consisted of the hard-to-reach rural areas and the council housing estates with the worst reputation. This meant that he had to travel long distances to collect premiums, frequently needing to return to clients on Friday evenings after they had been paid. At the beginning of my High School years he was offered a better job with another company, but later lost it when his managing director committed suicide and the company had to cut back on staff in order to pay death duties. Ironically, my father went on to find a job as a Deputy Registrar of Births, Deaths & Marriages which he still held when he died a few years later, although this also paid badly.)
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Later, when I grew older, I joined the local amateur dramatic society, which had a good reputation and took itself very seriously. Initially I performed as a dancer when needed, but increasingly I became interested in the production side and worked as an assistant stage manager. In this I was following an interest which I had first gained at primary school. A prolonged period of illness had left me out of the school play (as I had a good memory, I usually had a leading role), and when I returned to school I was allotted to help the stage management team. My mother did not come to the play since I was not performing - we both viewed stage management as very menial in the 1960s - and we were astonished later when a friend of hers sung my praises for being so competent.
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During the summer the town played host to a weekly repertory company, based at the Women's Institute hall a few hundred yards from my home. I first attended their performances as a small child, accompanying my "Auntie Nell" who received free tickets because of providing lodgings to members of the company. She died when I was thirteen, but later I joined the voluntary programme- and ice cream-sellers and continued to see the performances for free. This also stimulated my interest in production, and after I decided against becoming a dancing teacher, I initially thought of training as a stage manager. However, I eventually decided to aim for film and television production - I would have liked to stage manage outdoor events and music events, but this was unthought-of for girls in the 1970s - and to continue my studies at university level.
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In the meantime, I had a succession of more menial jobs. I had begun work as a babysitter at the age of about thirteen, boosted by my mother's reputation as a professional child carer. I never quite understood how being her daughter made me any more reliable than anyone else, but I continued to be the most popular babysitter in the area until I left home, although the pay varied enormously according to the client. During the summer after my GCE O Levels I also worked in the seaside town to the north of my own, an overgrown fishing village which now attracted a large number of day trippers from the East End of London. I was employed in a "greasy spoon" cafe on the sea front, but given my previous incompetence in Cookery lessons, this was not a conspicuous success. I only felt confident when I was selling ice cream on the beach or serving chips, and was particularly nervous of the coffee machine.
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Luckily, the following year I obtained a weekend and holiday job working in a gift shop in the same town. As well as cheap jewellery, vases, novelties etc the shop sold an enormous range of yellow pottery adorned with plastic pixies, inscribed with "A present from . . . ". To my astonishment this stock sold at a phenomenal rate, with whole coach parties crowding into the shop to admire and then buy. The shop was owned by a very pleasant middle-aged couple, members of the same amateur dramatic society, who were extremely sympathetic when my father died within a few weeks of my starting work there. However, I was rather taken aback when I realised that the same tea bag was used to make all three of us the mid-morning cup of tea, after which it was carefully dried before being re-used in the afternoon. I was sad to leave at the end of the season, though, to work for a well-known chain store in the market town where I went to school. This paid well, and often provided me with employment after school as well as on Saturdays and in the holidays, but the blue nylon uniform was an unpleasant reminder of school and the job was both boring and tiring.
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Outside of these activities, I spent much of my time reading or walking our dog along the sea wall which bordered the marshes to the south of my home town. Strong currents swept along the coast, attracting fishermen to the "points" where the seawall jutted out into the water, otherwise there was little company beyond the cattle grazing on the marshes behind. At one time parts of the old London Bridge was stored immediately behind the wall, broken into numbered chunks of stone, and this did attract visitors for a while. Aside from this it was a more popular spot at night, with the condoms which littered the occasional "pill boxes" left over from the Second World War reflecting the only other activity available in the town. But I did not care for boys.
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Next: VI. Leaving School
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