12: HOLDING MY BREATH:
Colleen Sullivan is the most popular girl in the school. She is straight out of an Angela Brazil novel! She is plump and freckled, but her thick auburn hair reaching way down her back to hang in shining ringlets, is the envy of other girls. Each morning Colleen’s mother releases her daughter’s hair from rags and brushes the locks around a copper stick and I, having called for her early in the morning, watch enviously. If only my hair would grow long and change colour overnight so that my mother could do the same for me. But to my mother, bobbed hair represented women’s emancipation and so my hair was never allowed to do more than touch my shoulders. In fact, on one occasion during the long school holidays, my mother cut my hair so short, largely in an attempt to even up both sides, that for weeks I refused to go out without a hat! Colleen had no such problem and on the strength of her golden locks and a commanding presence, had gathered around herself a group that was recognised by the rest of us as at the summit of the pecking order. All of us left out stood alone on the periphery looking in, for to group together with other rejects would confirm in us our lowly status.
Then, all of a sudden, as if it were one of the Miracles enumerated by the nuns Colleen deigns to invite me into her charmed circle. It happens like this. One morning I am jumping up and down on the steps to the side of the triangular driveway, waiting for the narrow school door to open.. Colleen and her friends are playing on the self same steps, and while I am alongside them, I am alone. "Let Sheila play" Colleen commands and the group opens to allow me in. Soon we are walking home together, for Colleen lives in Greenham Road which runs parallel to Wilton Road. Colleen! I can hardly believe my luck! Colleen, whom all our classmates admire and whom the nuns respect! And yet she does not see my family as odd and unacceptable, nor does she despise our house which is dilapidated when compared with her own; she never mentions that my mother often dresses in ill-fitting secondhand clothing and that, unlike Colleen who is always smartly turned out, my sister and I wear our school uniform until they are shabby or obviously too small. She does not care that my father wears open sandals without socks. This latter of concern to me, and if my father is to come to a school event I plead with him "put socks on Dad." For I hope that socks will cover the fact that he is not wearing shoes!
This is not to say that at times Colleen does not attempt to make me over in her own image. "You can’t say ‘school’ properly", she says. "It’s not ‘skoool’, like you say it, it’s ‘skul’". She pronounces the ‘oo’ like the ‘u’ in pull. At the time we are walking home accompanied by Betty Scott who lives opposite Colleen in Greenham Road. Betty, a tall, sallow, girl with spread nose, remarks "her way might be right, but who’s Sheila Lahr to be right!" BC - Before Colleen - that had been the general concensus of opinion. "Who’s Sheila Lahr. Who and what does she think she is!"
Together, Colleen and I go to Confession, discussing, on our walk up Colney Hatch Lane, the sins we should enumerate to the priest. We giggle over ‘adultery’ for we are not supposed to know about that. At last we settle for three or four lies, steaing a pencil, losing our tempers, and being rude to our parents. All safe bets. At last it is my turn to enter the confessional box where I kneel facing the grille behind which the priest can barely be seen. "Bless me Father, for I have sinned. I last went to confession one, two, weeks ago. To assure us that it is never too late to receive forgiveness and grace, at school we are told the story of a sinner who after many years repented. Kneeling in the confessional box he informs the priest that he last went to confession twenty years ago! "What kind of penance was he ordered", I wondered. "How many rosaries, how many Our Fathers and Hail Marys! Maybe it would take him a further twenty years to say them all! I snigger. However, in the confessional box my sins are simple statements. They are practical and reveal nothing of the physical, sexual and emotional turmoil of the pre-pubescent. I had made my first confession at the age of seven, shortly after my baptism, and my First Communion a year or so later. For this latter I was dressed in white dress and veil, on which my mother spent hard-earned money, rushing madly about for the best bargain to ensure that I was dressed appropriately. To this day when I look at the veiling which I use to cover exposed food, I say to myself "that would have done for First Communion or the Corpus Christi procession!" At this June procession, those who had recently made their First Communion were given cardboard boxes of rose petals, a ribbon attached on both sides of the box and around our necks. As we walked, we scattered rose-petals over the pathways. A year or so later when Oonagh made her First Communion, I was happy to be allowed once more to importanatly bedeck the pathways around the Church with these pink rose petals. Petals which appeared to come straight from God at that time. But now, instead, I see a group of nuns deliberately gathering roses for mutilation. He loves me, he loves me not!
Colleen takes me along to the Catholic Girl Guides meeting at Our Lady of Muswell church hall, where I promise, with some reservations, to do my duty to God and the King. At Guides I join in camp fires in the hall, several Companies of Guides meeting together to sit cross-legged around a virtually real fire made from twigs and a light behind red paper. "Little Liza Jane" we sing, banging the metal ends of our belts together to maintain the rhythm. We are on a scavenger hunt and I am racing against time to find all the items on the list. We are taken on a trip to the Home Farm at Arkley, walking from Chipping Barnet. The day is sunny, the sky blue and we walk along chatting happily. "How far do you think you’ve walked?" Lieutenant Weber, a dark woman somewhere in her thirties, her black hair worn cropped, asks me suddenly. The way has seemed so short I have no idea. "About half a mile" I say blithely. She frowns. "You’ve walked a mile in twelve minutes" she says "you’ve passed that bit of the test, but you don’t know how to estimate a mile." I hear only that I have passed a test, a mile in twelve minutes! Alongside and in front of me Roger Bannister runs a four minute mile in 1954. But I am never to receive the appropriate badge to sew onto my uniform! A uniform which my mother has bought for me at Arthur Humphreys, darker and thicker than the washed out blue cotton worn by the other guides, even by Colleen, for mine is winter weight. Colleen and the others need to wear jumpers under their uniforms during the winter. But I am not at all grateful to my mother for I want to be the same as my peers! The Guide hat, both winter and summer, was made of navy blue felt with a brim. Ena Macfarlane, also in our Guide Company could pull her hat into wonderful shapes, which on our way home, she perched on her head. A skill denied me.
At Home Farm we visit the cowsheds where the cows stand quietly in their stalls and I breathe in their sweet smell of milk, straw and dung. Men milk them by hand and one such milker turns to smile at us. He holds a white blue rimmed enamel mug which he dips into the bucket of milk beneath the cow and invites each of us to drink. The milk is creamy and pleasantly warm, but I sip it guiltily. Milk, my mother has told me, must be pasteurised to guard against tuberculosis which is endemic to cows. For days afterwards I watch myself for symptoms, hearing them in every cough and sneeze. It is severl years before an X-Ray indicates that during my childhood my lungs had been atttacked by tubercular bacilli although this had nothing to do with unpasteurised milk! Tuberculosis was common in those days.
At the Farm on this balmy day, we play team games in the field and in the afternoon, after we have eaten our sandwiches, Captain instructs us to take an afternoon rest in one of the few tents set up in the field. A few of the older girls rebel. They are not tired, why should they waste the day in resting, or sleeping? They go off together in a group and climb trees. For a time I lie down on the palliasse, but soon I am bored and leave the tent to explore the terrain. It is then that I find my mother has arrived and brought with her Alf and Fred Dawson. Alf is perched on the branch of a tree surrounded by these older girls and I feel left out. He has no interest in me, now he belongs to them and it is not possible for me to stake my claim.
Guides is not all pleasure, for even here we are affected by the arbitrary decisions of authority. We sit cross-legged on the floor in the hall and the Captain addresses us. She is flanked by Lieutenant Weber and the Ranger, Gwen who is a plump, placid girl. The two Officers are dressed neatly in military style with navy blue skirts and fitted jackets. A reorganisation is to take place. Girls are to be moved from one patrol to another. Also, the policy which put sisters together is to be changed. They are to be separated. I glance at Oonagh who has recently joined the Guides. She is to be moved from out of the Poppy to the Rose patrol. Neither of us care, for our paths have already diverged. But the girls around me are crying, some quietly, the tears running slowly down their cheeks, others such as tall, dark, slim, 14-year-old Josephine Wilde, with abandon. She sobs into clenched fists, her head bent in grief. She rocks backwards and forwards, cries out hysterically. I find tears in my own eyes. Loyalty given to a patrol, work to obtain marks in competition with the others in order to make it the top patrol, have all gone for nothing. At last we are dismissed and return home sullenly, many vowing never to go again to Guides. But, the intervening week and parents’ urgings result in adaptation to the new regime. On returning home from the meeting I had complained to my mother, but she could not understand why anyone should make a fuss about such matters. "What does it matter which patrol you’re in?" she asks reasonably. "Anyway, Josephine has the right surname!" At the Home Farm she had taken a dislike to Josephine Wilde, finding a threat in her loudness and unrestrained energy.
Colleen and I form our own club - the Daredevils Association for Colleen is a devotee of the Saint, Biggles, and Bulldog Drummond. We make ourselves badges from a piece of oblong metal covered in blue silk embroidered with the letters ‘DDA’ and to prove our daring, we walk along the scaffolding of a deep trench which takes up half of Greenham Road - a roadworks temporarily deserted by the workmen. I hold onto the sides and try not to look down to the gravel and water below. We climb trees, jump from walls and even, later, during the war when I am evacuated, memories of the DDA encourage me to walk along the outside of a bridge across a railway line, the metal rails far below, the threat of a smoky steam train under my carefully moving feet.
Colleen’s mother always makes me welcome and sometimes we play in her garden. Mrs. Sullivan is a home dressmaker, an activity which adds to the family income. The Sullivans also let a room to an old man named Mr. Hodges, grey haired and wearing side whiskers. His one claim to fame resides in his description of the loss of a watch: "There it was, gone" he is reported to have said. A statement repeated by Mrs. Sullivan to Colleen who in repeating it to me with much glee, adds by way of explanation "If it was there it couldn’t be gone!" Mr. Sullivan, a short, broad, sandy-haired man, born in England of Irish parents, is a building trades foreman and his job takes him away from home for long periods. Colleen’s brother Terence, four years older than her, is away at a Catholic boarding school and so Colleen is in the position of an only child. Colleen adores this plump, stocky, freckled boy, but to me he is no more than someone Colleen talks about, for even in the school holidays, I am separated from him by his seniority. At last, when he is brought home to live and sent as a day boy to St. Ignatius College the reason given to me by Colleen is that she made herself ill with excitement each time he was expected home.
"My mother was the girl next door" Colleen tells me. "She lived next door to my father when they were children, then they went out together and got engaged and got married." Mrs. Sullivan is half Jewish, her hair dark and a little frizzy, although not as curly as my mother’s hair. Colleen with an Irish name and colouring favours the Irish side. "The men in the IRA are lining up and wanting to be hanged and die for Ireland", she tells me proudly. I see a long line of men pushing and shoving each other in their eagerness to be first on the gallows. There have been a number of bomb incidents in London involving bridges. Colleen repeats also tales of the Black and Tans, the British force raised in 1920 ‘to put down insurrection in Ireland’ (30). "They boiled prisoners in oil" says Colleen. Later, my mother tells me that Mr. Sullivan had been a Black and Tan. She is scathing. "What kind of Irishman does he call himself!" But his experiences have confirmed in him a nascent Irish patriotism which has been passed on to his daughter.
It may well be that it was Colleen’s revolutionary emotions in this direction that led her to be one of the leaders of a school stocking strike, or sock sit-in! For while we are allowed in summer to wear a navy and white cotton school dress, we are forced winter and summer to encase our legs in beige woollen stockings. We are ten to eleven year-olds and the day is hot, the sun striking the large classroom windows to bathe us, sitting targets, in perspiration. The murmur begins. "Why can’t we wear socks?" We scratch ouir legs, the wool in this heat having set up an irritation. Our grumbles and discontent culminating in an instruction flying about the classroom from girl to girl "tell everyone to come to school in white socks tomorrow." Next day I wear my badge of courage on my feet. We are defiant. Sitting at our desks, our faces resolute we declare stubbornly, "we ought to be allowed to wear socks when it’s hot." The sister is agitated. Her whole class is out of control. She cannot cope with children resolute upon an unapproved cause. She sends for Reverend Mother. Reverend Mother enters the classroom to sit at the high teacher’s desk, her lined face smiling, her sharp eyes behind the wire-rimmed spectacles watching us closely. "I know" she says in honeyed tones "it is very hot weather. Your lelgs become very warm and you do not like a little discomfort." Her eyes flick towards the picture on the wall of St. Catherine tied bravely to her wheel, arms and legs extended, whirling round and round to be consumed by fire; then to the crucificx of Jesus nailed to the cross, thorns piercing his bloodied head, his poor hands nailed to the wood. We fidget in discomfiture. Reverend Mother continues "We like our girls to look smart so that Convent girls are respected....always properly dressed...proud to belong to us...." her gentle voice presenting us to ourelves as soldiers in the battle. Soldiers in the struggle for recognition and veneration of all our school stands for. And a promise to the Catholic girls of a heroic martyrdom in defence of our religion, besieged by evil forces.
Outright or threatened punishment we could handle, meet with fortitude, but sympathetic words and a call to duty we are unable to withstand. "But" Reverend Mother concludes, just in case any doubters remain, "We will look into the matter if you all come in stockings tomorrow. Perhaps in the future we will make socks part of the uniform for hot weather." She has won. Next day we wear woollen stockings and offer up our discomfort to God. We hear no more about a relaxation of the school uniform.
During the school holidays I go swimming together with Colleen, at Durnsford Road Open-air Swimming Baths, Bounds Green. A wonderful swimming pool, the fifteen foot deepest end reflecting a blue floor, and the shallowest end three foot six inches. There are also sun roofs and there we sunbathe once we have had enough of the water. The baths are entered by a swing door and once in the lobby we pay 6d for a private cubicle and locker, or 2d to undress and dress in the Coomon Room, receiving in both cases a coloured elastic band to wear on an arm. Then, pretending a pleasure of which I am not certain, I enter the water. Uncertain in my enjoyment for I always feel cold. Surely I had not struggled out of the fluids of my mother’s womb to be engulfed in these less accommodating waters with their smell of killer antiseptic! I have learned to swim only because I fear that otherwise Colleen will go to the baths without me. When we have had our fill of the water, we climb the wide stone steps up to the sun roof to lie on our towels.
Should the pool be especially busy, which is mostly throughout the summer, swimmers are culled by the colour of the band on their arm. "Blue - or red - or yellow - green - bands, out of the water" the megaphone blares. Therefore, we never know how long we will be able to stay at the pool, but on a ‘good’ day we can spend all day there, from morning until tea-time, taking with us a sandwich for lunch and, if we have any money, buying a fruit drink, or a chocolate bar, from the kiosk.
I am an indifferent swimmer and on one occasion almost drown for Ena Macfarland, at home in the water, grabs me from out of the shallow end and, swimming on her back, pulls me, also on my back, out to the deep end. My face is under water and at first I struggle, but soon a delicious dreaming comes over me and I am at peace. When suddenly, as if from a distance, I hear Oonagh’s voice cruelly breaking into my reverie: "Leave her alone, Ena. Let her go." I find myself dumped. There are no arms around me. I am on my own. I reach out for Oonagh, but she is swimming away. In spite of myself, self-preservation takes over and I struggle to the side of the baths, grasp the rail and climb out to bring up ‘bucketfuls’ of water. "You nearly drowned me!" I say fiercely to Ena, but she laughs and quickly runs away. Nowadays, the swimming bath is a nursery and growing plants send their tentacles into the confined lockers, to drag over the tiled surround and to lurk on the floor of the pool in the place of my almost demise.
Colleen and I go roller skating at Alexandra Palace, walking up Goodwyns Vale, along Grosvenor Avenue, stepping in the footprints made together with my father a few years before. Under the archway the echoes of years past call out to me, up the wide stone steps to the side of the Palace and into the rink, to be assailed by the noise of metal wheels striking a hard surface, a colour of skaters whirling in a circle, circle, circle. At first I must hire skates, strapping them across my shoes, or tightening a metal grip with a key, sometimes not tight enough so that one of them loosens, and hangs from the strap around my ankle, and I fall. But soon my mother is to buy a secondhand pair screwed to boots, the boots too small. However, the skates are extendable and so my father screws them onto an old pair of my walking shoes. For the learners, a number of spaced horizontal bars havae been provided nearby the rink and at first I practice down these alleys, my hands posed over a bar on each side in case I start to fall. Until, at last, my feet obey directions from my mind and soon I am flying like a bird. ‘Fast Skaters Only’ announces the roll down, or over, board lit up and situated over the rink. When the board announces ‘Dancers Only’ I watch the girls in their colourful short skirts and the nicely dressed boys skating togeether around the rink to the Skaters Waltz and other such music. One day I too will dance on skates.
After skating, and on our way home, Colleen and I stop to talk to friends, standing outside a house to the side of the archway entrance, and there we attract the enmity of an old woman who, disturbed at the presence of several pre-nubile girls, calls to us repeatedly from a window "go away - go away from my house." So incensed is she at our aimless chatter and youthful pleasure, that she doesn’t see or hear the bomb which during the Second World War whines down to fall upon her house, levelling it out of existence. "She wasn’t a nice old lady" we say, with the callousness of youth and inexperience.
Although Colleen considers herself Irish, her awareness of her mother’s heredity means that she makes a friend of any Jewish girl attending the Convent. There are not many and are generally identified by their withdrawal from class during lessons on the New Testament. The only Jewish girl in our class is Stella Friedlander whose father owns a small grocery shop, Colleen drawing this small, dark-eyed girl into all of our games at school. As it happens, at St. Martin’s Convent I never heard an anti-semitic remark, although anti-semitism was much in evidence in the surrounding neighbourhood. "You’re Jews" accuses a boy aged about ten, and flanked by several companions. They have cornered me, my sister and my cousin Seema in the yard off Wilton Road. We are pressed against the wall, our tormentors lined up in front of us. My only instinct is to deny everything. "I’m not!" I reply vehemently. "I’m a Catholic." "Cafflicks are Jews" retorts the boy.
"My best friend at home is Jewish" says Colleen angrily. She is referring to Stella Friedlander. This is during the Second World War and we are evacuated with Our Lady’s Convent to Welwyn Garden City. Loud-mouthed Pamela Bloomfield has made an anti-semitic remark to small, neat, quiet Zena Platter, the only Jewish girl in our class. Colleen stands in the classroom, her eyes blazing and the other girls silent spectators to the scene, melt away. Fully confident of her own worth, in those days Colleen had greater courage than me. For I was never sure who I was and clung to what I was meant to be within the majority group. For otherwise:
O U T spells out
And out of this game you must go
Because my mother told me so
It is ironic that while I look back at this short space of time before the Second World War as happy because I am at last at home with my mother and Colleen, the most popular girl in the school, is my best friend, it is during this period that I develop asthma. While I was boarding at the Convent, there had been moments when my breath was caught within my body and I could neither inhale nor exhale. But such experiences lasted only moments and then, of its own accord, my breath moved in and out again and I forgot the feeling of stasis, until it happened once again. But suddenly, for long periods normal breathing which accompanies us at birth, fails, and to breathe I must painfully force air in and out of my lungs. The breath entering harshly, but losing itself on its way out. I walk bent over, my hands pressing on my hips, I hold onto furniture, clinging to tables and chairs. If I go to school I stagger along grasping at garden walls, stopping frequently and making slow progress. Sometimes, fortunately, by sitting down for the morning in the classroom my difficult breathing eases and I am able to walk home almost normally. My mother buys me Potters Asthma Cure for use at home and I light a mound of the herbal mixture with a match, to breathe in its smouldering smoke. Later, my parents buy me an atomiser, a plastic cup with glass funnel attached to a rubber ball which, when pressed, releases a spray of Riddobron, this latter bought in a small, dark bottle. For many years I sleep at night with my atomiser by my side.
My mother blames my asthmatic attacks upon the shock of my father’s imprisonment and the upset which it caused in our lives. In those days asthma was considered to be an entirely psychosomatic illness. Therefore, my mother takes me to hospital after hospital where we sit on hard benches for five, six, seven hours, waiting in a large, drab, noisy open room. The monotony broken only by the occasional appearance of a large, trundling tea-trolley. First, of course, it is necessary to lay bare our financial circumstances before the Lady Almoner, for some payment must be made for trreatment. We sit in a small office and I feel my mother’s embarrassment as she reveals our poverty. The Lady Almoner sits filling out a form while my mother tells lher "we’re not selling very much now. I have to pay the mortgage, the coke bills, the electricity, the gas, the rates, the water rates, the school fees and so on and so on." At last the sum total of our existence is set down in black and white and with any luck my mother will have to buy no more than one or two sixpenny stamps to stick on a card. When at last we see a doctor, he has various theories about me. Spoiled children develop asthma and need to be sent away from home! Others understand vaguely about allergies and blame our cat or hay fever. I am to develop hay fever a little later, but that is as the result of lying in the straw-like grass of the garden of a nearby empty house in Wilton Road, my mother intent at the time upon collecting some admired plants. As for our cat, well, I suppose it didn’t help, but we had always kept a cat at home. Our visit to the hospital generally results in a carton of powder or crystals with instructions to dissolve in water and breathe in as a nose wash. Eventually, after many such visits and hours and hours and hours of waiting time, I refuse to enter another hospital and my mother at last accepts my asthma as a given fact which can be ameliorated, but not cured.
It is not until 1968, a year in which the American military continued to lay waste to Vietnam, a year in which the man with the dream, Martin Luther King, was murdered, a year in which Enoch Powell forecast ‘rivers of blood’ should black immigration continue, a year in which the students of Paris went to the barricades, a year in which Russian tanks crushed a move to liberalisation in Czechoslavakia, that researchers announced much asthma was caused by an allergic reaction to the dust mite! Billions and trillions of these microscopic ugly mites having invaded my respiratory system from the hundreds and hundreds of dusty books amidst which at night I sleep. Until my body, in defence, closes in upon my breathing apparatus. Soon I am missing out on school for weeks at a time and sometimes, especially in winter, bronchitis accompanies the asthma. At these times I am confined at home to lie in a bed around which a tent, made from sheeting, has been erected while I breathe in friars balsam issuing in steam from the spout of a tin kettle. Days, weeks, months, years, I spend, lying in bed and watching patterns on the walls and ceiling made by staining and changing light. On one side of my bed in the downstairs front room, the wallpaper is torn and reveals broken plaster. I lie back on raised pillows, I draw the fingers of my left hand across the pitted wallscape to enjoy the harsh tactile experience.
While I lie in bed struggling to breathe, at the Convent lessons are continuing, the class being taught as an entity and the lesson given only once. On each occasiion when I return to school following an absence, I find chunks of knowledge have been dealt with and put away, and I must proceed without them, much as if I am putting together a jigsaw from which many pieces are missing. For instance, during the term in which we begin upon algebra I am fortunate enough to remain well until the very end of term, when I miss the exam. However, my report says ‘Algebra -Very Good’. Unfortunately, during the succeeding terms I am ill with asthma for several weeks and suddently I have become a dunce - at algleblra, arithmetic, geometry, French, Geography....."Does not concentrate - does not listen - must work harder...." declare my school reports. My parents are disappointed in me and begin to concentrate upon the academic prowess of my sister. The class is streamed by age and performance into two divisions and suddenly I drop from among the first three in exams to last. I cannot understand how this has happened to me and yet vaguely I connect this to my absences from school. But no one else appears to recognise the effect these absences are having on my school work. Apparently, I am expected to rise above them and do as well as ever! I am the same person as in previous terms. An avid reader, a writer of stories and poems, interested in ideas and the world around me and yet here I am, dubbed supid, a thickie. Years later my cousin Cecil is to give ma a book - I am Jonathan Scrivener by Claude Houghton (Penguin Books 1936) - which divides persons into those who have brains and those who have minds. The former good at learning facts and the latter able to put together knowledge and experience to form concepts. With relief I class myself among the latter and this provides me with some consolation. School, of course, is interested only in those said to have ‘brains’, those who can learn by rote and regurgitate knowledge. Imagination and curiosity are dirty words. Children are inadequate adults to be disciplined to fit into an irrational society and indoctrinated with disinformation. In fact, while on teaching practice in an inner city infant school in the early 1970s, I conclude that children are sent to school to be made stupid.
The nuns especially distrusted ‘precocious’ children and no doubt their belief in divine intervention left them a little short in an understanding of cause and effect. It may well be that they saw my descent as a fitting punishment for my family, God being just. This because my mother would boast to them about the family’s literary connections and her glorious plans for her children’s futures. "Do you think we’re foolish?" Reverend Mother demands of me. Her eyes glinting behind wire-framed spectacles. I have been called to her office to face both her and Sister St. Francois, the latter standing alongside me and nodding her head, while Reverend Mother interrogates me from behind her desk. Reverend Mother thrusts a piece of paper at me and I see it is a poem written by Oonagh, beginning ‘O moon, O stars.’ "O!" I say to myself "why did my mother send it to them!" I look at Reverend Mother without speaking, for I do not know what to say and at last she instructs me to return to my classroom. And as I leave the office she sends after me a parting shot "We know Shakespeare when we see it - we are not stupid"!
Since that time I have discovered that I and my sister were in good company for Anna Wickham writes in The Writings of Anna Wickham: Free Woman and Poet: Pubd: Virago 1984 for the Centenary of her birth:
"Often during this time I would write a poem for my father. This got me little credit with the nuns, who thought it queer. We wrote our home letters on Sunday afternoons in the large classroom, and we always had to show what we wrote to the nun in charge. On one occasion I had written in reply to some sad word of his, a very inspiring poem on the beauties of hope. Sister Mary Aden looked up at me virulently from the verses and said ‘I have read this before in a book’. That was the cruellest thing the nuns ever did to me."
For the religiose Humility is the greatest of Christian virtues and the words of the poet William Blake have no meaning for them:
Humility is only doubt and does the sun and moon blot out
nor do the words of Charlie Bird Parker, the Afro-American Jazz musician:
"Humility won’t take you nowhere"
I cannot fathom why my parents made no connection between my absences from school and my lack of scholastic achievement. Whatever the reason, they accepted the assessments of my ability - or inability - set out in school reports. "Does not concentrate" leads my mother to take note of advertisements flooding the newspapers for ‘Pelmanism’, a pseudo-science which claims to train the mind. While she cannot afford to send for the course, she can at least pounce upon the words "Do you have a butterfly mind?" That, she decides, is my problem. A butterfly mind! This fluttering mind alighting on friends such as Colleen, or playing when I should be studying, resting on a thousand and one interests which take me away from proper attention to my school work. I, at her words, as if in a distant screen see my mind with gossamer wings of light blue, flitting from table to chair, to the bookshelves, out into the garden to land on the blood-red peonies, then down to lie out flat on a grey stone, transparent wings outstretched. Drifting to sip nectar from the mauve buddleia, rising to soar into the cloud-streaked sky - up, up, up this ephemeral creature. What if there is no return? And I see myself as living in a kind of no-man’s land.
On to The Wilton Road Story
Get You Back Home