The Way We Were...

"I've got a note for you, Mummy!" Hilary whooped out of the school gates, trailing her duffle coat dustily behind her.


"I'll read it for you," she continued, studying the type-written paper in her hand, "It says Party Clothes for School." "Let me see," I said, unconvinced. Hilary's reading sometimes owes more to Look and Guess than Look and Say. In fact the note reads Partial Closure of School - the teachers' strike had finally reached our infants school.


As the note informed me, only certain classes were affected; while Hilary's teacher was apparently one of the militants, Anne's was not. It was not pure pessimism on my part to foresee complications in explaining this turn of events to my girls.


"Hilary's not going to school on Wednesday?" Anne exclaimed, "Why not? She's not ill or anything, is she?" "No," I agreed, "but she can't go to school because her teacher won't be there." "Why won't she?? Where is she going?" "Nowhere, really. She's, well, she's on strike that day."


"On strike! What does that mean?" 


 "It's a form of protest. The teachers want an increase in their London weighting..."


"Waiting for what?" Hilary wanted to know. I tried again. "They want to be paid extra for being teachers in Greater London because it's such an expensive place to live."


"Do you mean," Anne asked, horrified, "that our teachers get paid  for teaching us?" I had to laugh at the look of disillusion on her face. "Of course they do. What did you think?" "I thought," said Anne, sadly, "that they did it because they love us..."


We walked in silence for a few minutes, then: "Why is Hilary's teacher stricken and not mine?"  


"Striking, not stricken," I corrected her, though the grumblings of mothers worrying about taking time off work or making alternative arrangements for their strike-bound offspring make me wonder if Anne might be proved right.


"Striking, then," Anne replied with a pained look which silently accused me of being pedantic, "Why are some of the teachers on strike but not others?" "I expect it's because they don't all belong to the teachers' union." "See!" Hilary is exultant, "My teacher belongs to an onion but your teacher doesn't!" "I don't care," retorted Anne, stubbornly, "My teacher doesn't want to be in your teacher's onion..."


"Union!" I raised my voice above the uproar, "It's union, not onion..." My daughters, glaring at each other in open warfare, paid no attention. "My teacher wouldn't belong to your teacher's opinion anyway,"  said Anne with an expressively haughty shrug, "Because she's Australian!" Her reasoning leaves Hilary floundering.


They returned to the subject over the tea table. "What's a union?" They wanted to know. I rack my brains for easy explanations. "A union," I began, hesitantly, "is made up of lots of people who do the same work, like teachers, who band together to make sure they have good working conditions and enough pay. Then, sometimes, if they can't get what they want, they start industrial action."


 "What's dusty action?" they asked, fascinated. "Well, going on strike is one way of taking industrial  action," I told them. "We're back to that old strike again," Anne said with a melodramatic sigh. "Do you belong to a union, Mummy?" Hilary queried. "They don't have unions for mothers," I said. "They do! They do!" Anne cried, "Andrea's mother belongs to one at their church, it's called the Mothers Union!"


I had a sudden vision of the Mothers Union downing their coffee cups and knitted squares and demanding fewer pews to  dust and a share of the collection plate. "It's not that type of Union," I attempted to explain, "The Mothers Union is a kind of club for mothers." My daughters were not listening. Hilary, in particular, was looking decidedly worried. "Don't join the Mothers Union," she begged me, "and don't you go on strike as well." I promised her I wouldn't "Mothers don't go on strike," I reassured her quickly.


Not that my devotion to duty will do anything to ease the current economic crisis, I suppose; still my daughters seem extremely relieved that I, at least, have no intention of taking "dusty action."


 Slough Evening Mail - 1972



"This country is in a terrible state," pronounced Little Nan, emphatically.


"We're never going to pull ourselves out of it, that's the trouble," declared Hilary, with feeling.


"When, oh when," sighed Anne, more in sorrow than in anger, "will we be Great Britain again?"


I think I should explain to anyone who now has the idea that my daughters display a most praise-worthy awareness of current affairs, and a concern for the country unusual in those of such tender years, that they were not, as it happens, discussing the rate of inflation, rising unemployment, the economic crisis or the need for private enterprise. Actually they were watching It's a Knockout" on TV and the British team, having taken only one point in each of the last two games,was lying in an ignominious sixth place.


My children take this programme as seriously as others regard the Olympic Games or the World Cup. They have managed to postpone their bedtime on Wednesday night without ever asking for an extension that I can remember and whether they go to bed dismal or delighted depends entirely on the fortunes of one or other British town - many of which they have never heard of before - which becomes to them all-important as our national flag-carriers.


Anyone who has ever watched the programme will know that fervent supporters like my daughters have little cause for celebration.


"Wouldn't it be marvellous?" they appeal to me, as they settle themselves in an expectant huddle in front of the television set, "if just for once the Great Britain team could win?" "Wouldn't it be lovely if we were the ones who paraded around with the trophy at the end while the theme tune was playing?"


"And wouldn't it be lovely," I can't help myself remarking, "if just for once you could all get undressed and ready for bed before the programme comes on and then go straight up to bed when it finished?" They look at each other - an exchange of sympathetic glances which says more clearly than any words that mothers can be such a bore sometimes.


They make the very slightest effort to meeting my request by loosening ties and kicking off shoes - though it is possible they would have done so anyway purely for reasons of comfort.


"Here comes the British team!" they cry, "Here they come! They look good tonight. They look like fast runners, don't you think, mummy? They look strong men." There is no point in disagreeing.


The games begin, the presenters direct plastic smiles at the cameras. My daughters, not to be outdone by a mere television commentator, add their giggles to Stuart Hall's loud and unrestrained cackle of hilarity. Great Britain cones second in the first game.


The next game is disastrous. All are sunk in gloom. Things get worse. The Great Britain team tries for double points by playing its joker and loses the gamble. "Whose silly idea was it to play a joker on that game?" my daughters ask, crossly.


My daughters are intensely patriotic. They can all play the National Anthem, with varying degrees of tunefulness, on their recorders, and they have sellotaped a charming picture of the Queen patting a horse onto their bedroom wall, stuck between the Bay City Rollers and Hilary's Primary Ballet certificate.


But how long will their patriotism stand the strain of Knock Out? Perhaps the Government should take action - if we watched ourselves winning on TV it might even boost our feelings of national pride.


Otherwise, as our milkman complained just the other day: "We've lost the Ashes, bet you anything you like we'll never win the World Cup again. Is there anything left - apart from the Eurovision Song Contest?"


Slough Evening Mail - 1977




I am sitting up in bed, grandly composing eloquent birth announcements all beginning: "To Brian and Jaqui, unbelievably, a son!"


"You CAN'T," said my husband, "put that!" Two days ago, in the first flush of fresh fatherhood, he would have denied me nothing; today reason is rearing its head once more.


"Why not?" I demand, stubbornly. To me the birth of our son is the most incredible of events; I am still happily suspended in a state of delighted disbelief. There cannot be many mothers, I imagine, who actually argue with the midwife over the sex of a new baby.


"It's a boy!" she announced triumphantly, over the agonised yelps of a new life. "You mean a girl," I corrected her, automatically. "No, no, a boy!" she insisted, working in a fluster of flurrying fingers at the foot of the bed. I can see my husband, hovering at the side of the bed, his face cracked across by a grin so wide that I can't help thinking he looks remarkably like the Cheshire Cat in Anne's Alice in Wonderland book.


"It is a boy, really," says the Cheshire Cat. The fact that the effects of gas and air upon me made his head appear to float about six inches above his shoulders not only heightened his likeness to Alice's enigmatic friend but also lent an air of incredibility to his words. "It can't be," I told him, sternly. They had to show me my son in all his naked masculinity, before I was prepared to believe him.


His sisters, sharp-eared and wakeful, tumbled into the bedroom at five in the morning. "We heard him crying! We knew he was here!" they exclaimed, crowding around the bundle in the carry-cot, then hurled themselves at me, like three flailing windmills. "We always wanted a brother," Anne breathed, ecstatically into my untidy hair. I know very well that if it had been a sister, she would have been saying, just as definitely, that we had "always wanted a sister." Life's like that.


As other visitors began to look in, it became obvious that nobody took very seriously my protestations throughout my pregnancy that I did not mind if this baby was a boy or a girl. "We knew you really wanted a boy," they said, as one, bending over the cot with smugly happy smiles as if somehow they had a part in engineering the whole tiny miracle from the beginning. After all, who can be sure of the power of so many good wishes?


No one seemed to share my surprise at finding myself the mother of a son. Only the doctor was as doubting as I, insisting on checking the credentials of his newest patient before conceding that he was, indeed "a handsome bloke."


Least concerned of all was our tiny son; one would never guess to look at him, sleeping so peacefully, that his arrival was preceded by a panicky 60 mile car drive to get home in time, culminating in a broken fan belt, a dried up water tank and a breakdown on the approach to the M4. "It must be a boy," the midwife said, dryly, on my eventual safe arrival home, "Only a man could cause so much trouble!"


School on Monday led Anne and Hilary to discover some of the less obvious advantages to having a new baby in the family. Their teachers, well aware that, in certain circumstances, older childen react badly to a demanding new rival, took pains to show special favours to my daughters.


"Miss McNeill made me calendar monitor today," said Anne, "because I've got a new baby brother."


"I had the spare milk today," said Hilary, not to be outdone, "because I've got a new baby brother, too."


"I wonder," added Anne, thoughtfully, "how long all this will last?"


Little Nan wonders too. Her "baby bruvver's" arrival has led to one completely unforeseen complication; every day she exhorts me to "get up today!" making me feel almost guilty about my enforced lie-in. Not that I am completely steeped in idleness - I still have to write a birth announcement which will meet with husbandly approval.


In the end, I leave  out all the wordy flourishes and it reads: "To Brian and Jaqui, the precious gift of a son, Steven John, a brother for Anne, for Hilary and for Little Nan."


I have to admit it, where certain messages are concerned, whatever the wording, the meaning is the same.




I shudder to think what it must sound like to the casual passer-by in the street outside. No less than murder most foul, I imagine.


It is my son - just listen to him: "Don't, Mummy! Please, Mummy, I don't like it. No! No! NO!" - a riding crescendo. They must be able to hear him bellow at the other end of town.


I haven't - I swear - lifted a finger to him. That is no cat of nine tails I hold in my hand but a family-sized bottle of medicated shampoo. Today is hair wash night. My son and I face each other across the bath mat and prepare to do battle...


It is the same scene every Sunday. As always, it starts on a deceptively friendly note. "It's not hair wash tonight, is it?" my son enquires, clambering into the bath. It is what Latin scholars would recognise as a question expecting the answer "no". 


So much for expectations. He knows jolly well, I tell him good-humouredly, that he must have his hair washed. It is Sunday, I inform him. Tomorrow will be Monday and the next day, Tuesday. Monday means play-group, Tuesday means lunch with Nanna, but Sunday means Sunday School, jelly for tea - and hair wash night. 


"I don't want my hair washed! My hair is as clean as anything. When I'm OLDER (wheedling) then I'll have my hair washed!" You would think he would know by now that such tactics won't work. I mean, how much older would he like to be? I unscrew the bottle top. That's when he switches gear: "DON'T, Mummy! Please, Mummy, I don't like it! No, no, NO!"


I've tried everything. I've washed his hair over the sink, in the bath, under the shower. I've told him to pretend he's a deep sea diver, working for the nation's prosperity on some Scottish oil rig. I've tried baby shampoo - No More Tears, it says on the label. Who are they kidding? But then three year olds can't read labels.


I've tried the cheerful, reasonable approach. "Now, you want to look smart for play group tomorrow?" He doesn't. "You wouldn't want to look a dirty, scruffy, untidy boy, would you?" He would. "You don't want people to think I don't look after you properly?" I despair. He glares at me - if this is a mother's tender, loving care, his expression indicates, then he will settle for a little wholesome neglect any day.


I have tried diverting his attention with all manner of bath toys. We've got the Queen Elizabeth, a speed boat which keeps coming to pieces, a RNLI lifeboat, two dopey-looking ducks and a gormless goldfish, shooting the rapids caused by Steven's flailing fists. "Man the lifeboat!" I shriek, gaily, trying to get him into the spirit of the game. He thumps the lifeboat with a fierce fist, sending it straight down into the deep. We gave to send the gormless goldfish to the rescue.


I've used one of those face shields which some mothers swear by. It makes him look like everybody's picture of a newspaper editor - if you can imagine the aforesaid editor stark naked, red in the face, screaming blue murder, surrounded by a flotilla of boats. "I don't want to be an Odditor!" Steven complains, bitterly. My mistake - his ambition at the moment is to be a dustman. Top of his Christmas present list was a road sweeper, one with the long pipe at the top for clearing out drains. I went round every local shop, trying to find one. "Funny woman!" I could hear the shop assistants thinking. They should meet my son, I felt like retorting.


But I digress - which is just what young Steven was hoping for. He has grabbed a towel and is making a quick exit. But he's not quick enough for me. It's no good, once again it's going to be a case of getting the Evil Deed over with as quickly as possible.


"I'm sorry," I console him afterwards, "But it has to be done." He sniffs, pathetically. I offer him the hand of truce. "I love you," I tell him, gathering him up, all damp and dripping distress. He is not exactly gracious in defeat.


"I love you too," he says, grudgingly, "But not as much as Sooty..."


(Slough Evening Mail - 1976)




I am not sure whether I should inform Special Branch or some other interested authority of the fact that my garage has become, over the last six weeks or so, the unlikely hide-out of a highly suspicious gang of adventure seekers.


They call themselves the Secret Six – their originality astounds me – and I would know nothing more about them than that were it not for the fact that each secrecy-shrouded meeting is preceded by a request for jam sandwiches and a bottle of orange squash. When you are looking for “advenchers” – Hilary’s spelling, not mine – you need a little bodily sustenance.


The influence of Enid Blyton, not to mention the Famous Five, the Secret Seven and the Five Find-Outers and their dog, is very much in evidence. It is easy to spot Enid Blyton fans – they come out with startling  pronouncements like “Fiddlesticks and Fish-fur!”, think everything that happens to them is “wizard” and talk in a succession of exclamation marks.


The Secret Six who meet in our garage are my three daughters, Jackie and Gary from three doors along and Sarah their next door neighbour. Not that they answer to those names during gang meetings, you understand. On Monday, Tuesday and Friday, between the hours of four and five o’clock, they are Janet, Peter, Pam, Barbara, Colin and Jack – names which might just ring a few memory bells in the minds of former Blyton readers.


I cannot say what the secret password is this week – but I have generally found that a plate of chocolate biscuits and a large packet of crisps gains me immediate admission, password or no. There they sit, in a serious circle, astride old bikes and wooden boxes, with an upturned packing case as a table in the centre, trying to look as if they are simply passing the time of day, and not engaged in the fearless solution of some minor mystery.


Their main problem, I would say, is finding a mystery, minor or otherwise. Our neighbourhood is not too hot on mysteries – and adventures are, to put it mildly, thin on the ground. There is a distinct dearth of secret messages and they are hampered, too, by the fact that our local policeman would not dream of glowering “Clear ‘Orf!”  when he meets them. He would be far more likely to ask how their cycling proficiency lessons were coming along and had they entered the school-children’s holiday competition on the theme of Crime Prevention and the Policeman?


They remind me of my own Secret Society days, when my sister and I made up the whole membership of a most mysterious body known as “The Green-Veiled Ladies” – so named because of a discarded set of green net curtains with which we disguised ourselves.


Such reminiscences do nothing to help the Secret Six, however, in their search for mysteries to solve. They don’t care much for my suggestions that they should bend their skills to discovering what happened to my hairbrush after Hilary used it on her Tressy doll, who spilt bird seed all over the larder floor when taking her turn to feed the budgerigar and why everyone becomes suddenly hard of hearing when I call them in for bed.


“But they’re not proper mysteries,” they protest.


Not to them, maybe, but certainly to me.


Kent Messenger

Summer 1975

Latest comments

23.04 | 20:15

lovely and heartwarming - an inspiration to us all x

09.03 | 12:07

Love this story told as ever beautifully.x

10.11 | 21:31

What a super account of a special event. I loved meeting you last night and seeing your creation come together. I’m so pleased you got so much from the activity

07.09 | 13:17

I have broad shoulders x

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