Wednesday 12 December 2018

Christmas Past

Since we're now in December I thought I'd revisit my childhood Christmases for this instalment of my memories of growing up in the 1940s and 1950s.

They were wonderful, those Christmases. For weeks ahead we were forbidden to poke into 'Grandma's corner', a space in her bedroom between the wardrobe and wall, because that was where mysterious packages were stowed. In fact 'Grandma's corner' was out of bounds from early November and late January because both my birthday and my sister's fell during those months. And then the Great Day would approach! On Christmas Eve we'd sit around the dining table wrapping our presents for the rest of the family, and perhaps making yet more paper chains to decorate the house. The Christmas tree would already be up, with little candle lights in their holders - real candles, burning brightly - no 'elf and safety worries then! Hazel and I would both be watching the clock, eager for bedtime because in the morning ... it would be Christmas Day!

Once in my bedroom, though, I would find it hard to fall asleep, and would creep out of bed to look out of the window in the hope of catching sight of Father Christmas's sleigh zooming across the sky. Though I never saw him (of course!) I lived in hopes that this year I might be lucky. Then, if I woke in the night, I would crawl to the bottom of the bed and feel my pillow case to 'see if he'd been'. Yes, we hung pillowcases, not stockings, but since the presents we were left usually included a jigsaw puzzle and an annual, a stocking would hardly have accommodated them. And always, at the bottom, was an orange and an apple.

Our 'big presents' would be left on the settee in the living room, covered with an old sheet - probably the same one we used when we played 'hospitals' with our dolls. The sheet was never removed until after we'd had breakfast and cleared away, and the lumps and bumps beneath it were wonderfully tantalising. When the time came, my mother and father, Gran and the auntie with whom we shared a home, would make a circle of chairs in front of the fire, the sheet would be removed and the presents distributed. My Grampy never joined us for this ritual - he was always in the kitchen peeling the potatoes and sprouts for lunch, or dinner, as we called it.

Oh, those Christmas dinners! They weren't elaborate as today's are - just boiled potatoes, Brussel sprouts, homemade stuffing and cockerel, but the smell and taste was divine. Any sort of chicken was a once-a-year treat, and our cockerel had been raised in a chicken run in the allotments just across the road from our house by 'Mr Young The Fowl Man'. In the weeks before Christmas we'd wake to the sound of the cockerels crowing and know one would end up on our table. Mr Young delivered it on Christmas Eve and my aunt would then singe off the remains of the feathers with a taper. Not a nice smell, but exciting, and not nearly as bad as the smell back in the autumn from the Christmas puddings being boiled in the copper. That was a smell I detested - wet pudding cloth and the house filled with steam. I didn't even like Christmas pudding very much, and still don't, though I love brandy and rum butter!

Back to the Christmas presents. We weren't snowed under, as children are today. There was usually one 'big present', quite often shared by my sister and me. My aunt knew someone who made wooden toys, and I particularly remember the dolls' house - my dad fixed up real electric lights that ran off a battery - and a huge model roundabout. It was a work of art, but we never quite knew how to play with it. There was always a new pair of slippers each, and some books. And, a running joke, a present from an aunt who we rarely saw, but who invariably sent us something far too young for us. I especially remember one year when we were quite big we each got a 12-piece jigsaw - we had endless fun doing 'speed contests' to see who could finish fastest. Her presents to the rest of the family were not received with much more enthusiasm - she invariably gave my mother an apron or a peg bag purchased at their church bazaar. And one year my mother's other brother, to whom we were very close, received the very same shaving bowl he had given to his brother the previous Christmas ... There were also the calendars - a picture pasted on an A8 sized piece of card with a booklet of tiny pages, one for each month. No space for writing in endless appointments then! But an empty space on the wall without one.

The present I'll never forget came when I was eleven. I had passed my 11-plus (though only 10 at the time I took it) and started at the local Grammar School that September. Until Christmas I had travelled on the bus, but really needed - and wanted! - a bicycle. I will never, ever, forget coming downstairs on Christmas morning and there, in the hall, covered with the inevitable sheet, was a bicycle shaped object. I was so happy I was practically in tears - I remember very vividly the excitement fluttering in my stomach. It was perfect. A red Hercules. My parents were paying for it in monthly instalments - long afterwards I came across the repayment book. I dread to think what they had to sacrifice to buy me that bicycle! Dad had to take me around the lanes, hanging onto the saddle, to teach me to ride it, but then there was no stopping me. That bike was my pride and joy. In fact, I only found the will to get rid of it when I moved here, two and a half years ago. Before that it hung in the garage wherever we moved, getting steadily rustier, and still I couldn't bring myself to consign it to the dump. It was still so special to me.

Christmas past. Carols and cockerel, paper chains, and presents tied with string - no sellotape then! The memories make me nostalgic and a bit sad - today we all go mad with endless preparations to make 'the perfect Christmas' - elaborate food, oceans of alcohol, flamboyant decorations, expensive presents - far too many, in my opinion - especially for the children. As they hastily tear the wrapping paper from one parcel after another do they really appreciate what they have received half as much as we did with our two or three presents (including the inevitable, boring slippers!)? But I am grateful I can share the celebrations with my wonderful family - and that I have such wonderful memories of simpler times.
Happy Christmas, Everyone!

Thursday 12 July 2018


Writing my Families of Fairley Terrace series has been making me think a lot about my own childhood in the 1940s. Although of course things had moved on since the early part of the century, very much remained the same. Surprisingly so, considering how far everything has evolved in the last 50 years or so.
To begin with, when I was a little girl there were very few cars on the road. I used to sit for ages on the steps at the bottom of our path watching for one to pass by on the main road from Radstock to Frome with a notebook and pencil to take down the numbers - it took a very long time to fill a page. I saw a grey one regularly - our next door neighbour - who was the Miners' Union secretary, I think, and also a magistrate - drove about in it. My uncle owned both a motorbike and a car, Sometimes he would take us out in the car on a Sunday afternoon for a ride and a picnic, often to Masbury Ring on the Mendips. And on his way back to work at the NCB offices after having lunch with us, he used to give me and my sister a ride to the top of the hill sitting on the motor bike tank! No crash helmets or 'elf an' safety in those days!

All deliveries were made by horse and cart. The milkman, the baker, the grocery deliveries, all courtesy of the Co-op.. They came once a week on a Monday afternoon, the order having been taken by a man with an order pad who called on Friday afternoons. I used to really look forward to his visits - he always played with me, doing bits of my jigsaws etc - and I clearly remember being in love with him at 4-5 years old and hoping he would wait for me until I was grown up so that I could marry him!

The Co-op was locally owned and run and had their own farm, dairy and bakery as well as the retail shops - grocery, butchers, fish shop, drapery, furnishings and a cake and bread shop with a little café at the back. They also had dozens of horses to pull all their delivery carts and wagons. Almost every evening at about 6.30 pm they would be taken in a long string to the Co-op field (behind the Football Field) which could be accessed either by the main road or by what we called 'The Back Lane', now known as Old Frome Road. My sister and I would wait at the roadside until we heard the distant clip-clop, and if they were using the Back Lane, run through the house and up the back garden to watch them pass by. We were always disappointed if they had been taken to another Co-op field in Tyning, on the other side of the valley.
The railway delivery wagon was huge, with a green baize cover and was pulled by a big cart horse. And at the other end of the scale ponies pulled trucks of coal and coal waste from Ludlas colliery at the bottom of the hill on tracks that ran across the road. Often on our way to school or home again we had to wait for them to pass. They were later replaced by a kind of Puffing Billy.

Life was simple, we played out all day when it was fine, across the fields and in the Back Lane - Off-ground-touch, hopscotch, marbles, all kinds of chases that involved someone being 'on it' and the rest running as fast as they could. When it was beginning to get dark we would play 'What's the Time, Mr Wolf?' Every summer the Methodist Chapel held a fete in a field that is now all houses, preceded by a fancy-dress parade. A lady who lived in a row of four cottages on the Back Lane made the most amazing costumes out of crepe paper. For dozens of children! Stepping into her little living room for a fitting was like stepping into wonderland, beautiful costumes hanging from every possible hook - one year my sister was Little Bo Peep, with wonderful flounces. Oddly I don't remember exactly what any of mine were, I just know nothing was beyond Mrs Bristow's talents. One of our favourite sideshows at the fete was trying to get a metal ring round a multiply-twisted wire without touching it - it was wired to a battery and a bell rang if - when! - you failed. This was set up by a gentleman named Ralph Chivers who lived with his brother (both bachelors) in one of the Big Houses on the main road.

But there were drawbacks too. Mainly, as far as I'm concerned, the lack of any form of central heating. In winter I always seemed to feel cold. We had only one fire - in the living room - and an Aladdin oil stove for warming any other room when necessary. We either sat as close as possible to the fire and scorched our legs or froze. Water for the bath was heated in a copper and dipped out with a dipper while we filled saucepans from the tap at the bottom. At school there was just one coke stove per classroom, surrounded by a fire guard on which knickers could be dried if one of the pupils had an 'accident'. Our little bottles of milk would be stood beside it to thaw. The walls of the cloakroom ran with water, and when the loos in our outside toilet block froze over paraffin lamps would be put in them to try to unfreeze them. Most of all I hated the clothes I had to wear. I have very sensitive skin and the woollen vests and jumpers made me itch so much I was constantly shivering. How I hated those vests - particularly on a Monday morning when they were clean and tight. We wore fleecy liberty bodices too and very big knickers.

Other pet hates were: Milk of Magnesia on a Sunday evening 'to keep us regular' - ugh, that horrible thick powdery spoonful (though I loved orange Minidex for Vitamin C); lumpy dry mashed potato; and, in school, having to lie down for a rest after dinner. In the first year infants' class children lay on a coir mat on the floor, but as I had a 'bad ear' my mother insisted I lay on a wooden pallet bed because of draughts coming from under the doors. I hated feeling different as well as not being used to having to try to sleep in the day. In the second year Infants' we lay on desks, so at least I wasn't singled out, but it was still a very long half-hour or whatever.

This is turning into a very long trip down memory lane, so I think I'll have to save the rest for next time. But I can't leave without mentioning some of the everyday items that have disappeared from the face of the earth but were commonplace when I was a child. Zambuc, a wonderful thick green ointment that healed almost anything, but primarily the long 'cuts' on ones fingers from constantly being in water, either doing the laundry or the washing up. Minidex, as already mentioned, Thermogene, sort of pink cotton wool for putting inside your vest if suffering from a chesty cough - my grandmother used to use it - and tiny bottles of olive oil, bought from the chemist, and warmed by the fire before dripping into the ear to soften wax. And of course Gibbs Dentrifice tooth powder in a tin, as pictured above. You wetted the toothbrush and then scrubbed it round the tin's contents to make a paste. Our bathroom had a bath and a loo but no handbasin, so in summer we washed and cleaned our teeth in the kitchen, and in winter with a bowl on a stool in front of the fire.

So you see much of the world The Families of Fairley Terrace is set in I experienced too, and can easily fit myself into the early 1900s with the help of a little imagination. Time moved so much more slowly then, now the pace of life rackets by in the blink of an eyelid, with new innovations and discoveries we did not even dream of. And I count myself very lucky to have had the best of both worlds!

Saturday 31 March 2018



Our name is probably one of the most personal things bout us.  Even though we share it with hundreds, thousands, tens of thousands of others.  Whether we like it or not, it's who we are.  No wonder expectant parents agonise over what their offspring should be called.  In most cases, they are stuck with it for life.  Though some, like my own daughter, manage to make the change.  She was christened Tracey Louise, which I thought was a very pretty name, but she hated the Tracey.  As soon as she started at uni she called herself Terri.  Her dad, my darling Terry, used to joke that she'd had his money, had his car, and now had his name.  

It did make for difficulty when her friends called, asking for 'Terri'.  I had to ask - which one?  And when she was married she was horrified when she realised her real name would be used and printed in the Order of Service!  (She soon got over that!)  Everyone, including her sister, Suzie, (christened Suzanne), call her Terri nowadays, as do I - most of the time, though when talking to relatives or old friends I still say Tracey.

Another thing about names is that many of them are tell-tale signs of how old you are.  Janet must have been very popular when I was born - when I was at college there were two others in my class.  Terry also had two girlfriends called Janet before the third one sealed his fate!

One of my best friends at school was named Enid, which she thought dreadfully old-fashioned, and hated, though her mother could never understand why.  She always went by her middle name, which was very pretty and is still popular today, and no, I'm not going to let on what it is.  But she was entered in the school register as Enid, and when a teacher who didn't know about her preference called her 'Enid' she would blush scarlet.  

Though some names remain popular through the ages, most seem to go in cycles - what were the names of old people I knew when I was young are now back in fashion.  Alfie and Emily are just two examples.  Some however, such as Mabel and Maud have largely been left on the back burner.  My own grandchildren all have traditional names - Tabitha, Barnaby, Daniel and Amelia.

When I'm writing a book, I take a long time deciding on the names of the people in the story.  I have to find one that belongs in the right era and also fits their character.  Once I have found the right name, I instantly get a clearer picture of them.  It's fine with the hero and heroine, I don't think many people would object to a strong, good woman sharing their name.  But when it comes to villains I get a bit worried.  What would so-and-so think if their name is used for the 'baddie'?  I've sometimes changed a name midway through because I've thought of someone who might be offended!  Because inevitably, names are attached in your mind to people you have known.  For instance, when I was at Primary School there was a little girl in my class who was a skinny little waif and none too bright whose knickers were frequently put to dry on the guard round the coke stove (no central heating in those days!) because she'd had an accident.  If ever I picture a similar character, her name instantly pops into my mind, though I've never used it yet!

Sometimes with minor characters the same name occurs to me time and again, so my editor has to point out - 'There are rather a lot of Freds..' or whatever!  And one of my regular readers made the mistake of reading the heroine's name wrongly in my Janet Tanner Oriental Hotel.  'Why ever did you call her Elsie?' she asked me.  I had to point out that she was actually called Elise, a name I'd taken a long time choosing!

So there you have it.  And besides being Janet I'm also Jennie and Amelia, and once, long ago, when I wrote a couple of bodice rippers which were all the rage at the time I was Jade Shannon.  I thought Jade was perfect for that!  

In fact, I'm very happy with all my names.  Though my mother very nearly called me Grace .... And I'd have liked that too.  In fact, my heroine in the new family saga I'm writing is called Grace.  But that's a story for another day ...