He ain’t heavy

Brother with studio light

My brother in the photographer’s studio

Today is Brother 2’s birthday; he was born on the day the first episode of Blue Peter was broadcast. He doesn’t usually celebrate birthdays so I’m doing it for him with this post. I recently came across these old photographs in the archives and it seems a good excuse to publish them. In an earlier post, I wrote about Peter Chadwick, the photographer who lived in our attic for most of my childhood. He was our longest lasting lodger and, like his mother Lee, a lifelong family friend. Still a student when he moved in, he created a dark room in one of the built-in cupboards of his garret. As he moved into photography as a career, he needed to build up a portfolio of portrait photographs in order to find work, and we were happy to oblige as his subjects. I can still remember the excitement of that day in a real photography studio: the intense heat of the lights, the rustle of the crisp white paper that we had to stand and pose against. My new shoes and the pastel striped dress I wore, my hair neatly brushed for a change. The photographs were beautiful and my parents had one, a group portrait of the 3 of us, proudly displayed at home for the rest of their lives. I don’t have that one but here are a couple more from that day in the 1960s:

childhood photograph

brother photograph

Brother 1

Peter went on to become a successful photographer and artist.

I was not particularly close to my brothers when we were children – we fought constantly –  so I’m pleased to find these very sweet childhood photographs in the family archives. I have it on record that Brother 2  was delighted when I was born, and this photograph of the two of us  seems to bear witness to that:

Brother 2 and meMum always described him as a delightful baby, sweet natured and always smiling. There are not many photos of him as a baby; as the middle one, he didn’t get the same camera attention as the first born or the only girl. But the one baby photo I do have, of him at 10 weeks old, proves Mum’s point:

Brother 2 at 10 weeksHappy birthday, Brother 2!

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Gilt trip (object 60 revisited)

Restored Regency mirrorThis Regency mirror may look familiar to regular readers of this blog. It looks quite different to how it did last time it featured here, in this post from 2012, although the view reflected in the convex looking-glass remains the same. I have finally got around to having it restored, along with the bureau in my previous post. Both restorations have only happened as result of the break-in I suffered a few months ago: my insurance paid for the bureau and I deiced to have this piece done at the same time. I doubt I would ever have got around to it otherwise, so it is a golden lining to that dark cloud.

I found a local BAFRA accredited antiques restorer and gilder, Katie Keat,  who has done an amazing job. Not only has the grand eagle been restored to his rightful perch on top, keeping watch over the comings and goings of my busy street outside, but the curlicues have been re-attached to the sides and all of the gold leaf replaced, even on the little decorative balls. Keat said she enjoyed the challenge and sent me these photos of the gilding work in process:

Re-gilding in process


This grand piece is ridiculously over the top for my small flat but I love it. Luckily my Victorian conversion has high enough ceilings to accommodate its ostentatious presence and (perhaps because its restoration was paid for with insurance money for my stolen jewellery), I think if it as my likle bit of Brixton bling. After its long and varied history it’s a real pleasure to look at Auntie’s mirror, hanging there amongst my Bohemian collection of paintings and bric a brac and books.

With (gold) knobs on.

Mirror overlooking room




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Silver lining: Object 28 revisited

Back in January, I posted the news that my flat had been broken into and I had lost some precious family items. Adding insult to injury,  the thieves had smashed up this family heirloom  in order to get at some of those items. Well, today I have some good news! My insurance paid out for the repair of the bureau, which has now been lovingly restored by local BAFRA member Katie Keat. Beautifully polished, it is now in better condition than it was before the robbery:

Restored bureauThe invisible mending of splintered wood is astonishing. Here are some Before and After shots:

Auntie's damaged bureau

Before: the smashed up bureau

Bureau repaired detail

After: good as new!

Look at the top left corner of the desk lid. The thieves had forced it open with my kitchen knives, splintering the wood. The veneer has been replaced with no visible trace of the damage.

Bureau openThe inside also bears no trace of the mess it was left in, when the thieves sprayed it with washing up liquid, presumably to ease the lock open. I’ve now learned a valuable lesson and won’t leave it locked shut again. Locking it not only failed to prevent the theft of Grannie Lane’s silver, but also brought about this distressing act of vandalism. On the plus side, I have learned the value of insuring your valuables. I wouldn’t have chosen this turn of events, but thanks to those thieving vandals, Auntie‘s heirloom has been beautifully restored: something I doubt I have could have paid for otherwise.

So this family object acquires another story, one that  the next generation of owners may talk about in years to come.


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Another Brick in the Wall (fence post with no object)

School gate

Having written one post which featured a brick wall as its focal object, I reckon I’d be pushing my luck if I did it again. But my recent visit to Barnes threw up lots of memories from these childhood streets, so here’s a post about them anyway, featuring some more walls.

The photograph above shows the left hand corner of the fence in front of  Barnes Primary School on Railwayside. Look closely and you can see that some of the bricks in the wall are newer than those around them. That’s because back in the 1960s,  this was a side entrance of Westfields Primary, a hulking great red brick Victorian building built in 1903. It was demolished in the 1970s and rebuilt in a more child-friendly modern style; here are the front steps now:

Front steps

..and then:

First day at Westfields

“First day at Westfields”

On the back of this photo my Mum has written “M., First day at Westfields.” It’s Brother 1 in his crisp new dark green blazer and cap, running out of there as fast as his little legs will carry him.

All 3 of us went to Westfields, my 2 brothers ahead of me. I have vivid, happy memories of my pre-school years, when  Mum and I would go to collect the boys each day and pay a visit to her mother, my Grannie Lane, on the way. At this time Grannie lived in the Westfields council estate opposite the school. Even now I can hear her reading to me from my favourite books, about Dinah the Deer and Frisk and Frolic the ponies, in her lovely gentle Hebridean lilt. Grannie died around this time so these are almost the only memories I have of her.

wallThis wall, on Railwayside between the flats and the school,  loomed large for me in those days. I can remember insisting on walking along it, Mum hoisting me up and holding my hand as I conquered the towering heights all the way to the end. As you can see by the adjacent bike stands now, the sense of epic scale was purely relative to a 3-year old’s eye.

The house at the far end of this wall, Park View (it overlooks the school playing fields at the front, but perhaps the Orchard playground at the rear provided the name) also holds a significant memory for me, though I have never been inside it. It’s a lovely building that I passed by every day on my way to primary school, and even before that on the aforementioned daily walks with my Mum.

DSC05322I was always animal mad, and at that uninhibited pre-school age would rush up  to any dog or cat and attempt to shower it with affection. Our lovely cat Frisky put up with this with such patience that I assumed all animals would be as keen, until I learned otherwise. A black and white English Springer spaniel lived at this house and sat outside the front door every day. On one memorable occasion I ran over to this dog and threw my arms around its neck with with my usual enthusiasm. The poor dog was not so keen, and growled his displeasure to tell me so. I ran away screaming and never rushed up to any dog again. I had learned my lesson, in the most gentle way possible.

Carmichael CourtThis is Carmichael Court, where my Mum lived from her teenage years in the 1930s until her marriage to my Dad in 1952. She wrote in her memoirs:

“We moved to Barnes in 1934 or 35 to 42 Carmichael Court, then a newly-built block of maisonettes… I attended Barnes Central Girls School in Lonsdale Road.. It was a friendly school and I was quite happy there.” (In the 1970s I attended the same school, by then a short-lived comprehensive, which closed in 1977). 

Not long after the family moved to Carmichael Court, my grandfather left them, never giving any further financial support. Grannie went to work as a cook to pay the rent, and both my Mum and her brother left school early to find work. It seems astonishing now to think that this exclusive gated block near the river was once affordable for a single mother with 2 teenage children, who earned her living as a domestic cook, to rent.
These photos were taken on the landing outside their flat. On the right is my Mum’s brother Murray in his wartime navy uniform, with Grannie; the one on the left is a mystery, inscribed on the back “Mr Lemon, Carmichael Court.”

Carmichael court 1930sBarnes is a place that has changed relatively little over the years compared to much of London, and although it is now mostly populated by the very rich, some of the old village charm remains. Most of the high street that I remember for its classic post office, hardware shop, greengrocers, toy shops and sweet shops has  been given over to the usual chain cafes and supermarkets, but I was glad to see that 2 recognisable shops remain: the Parrish bakers and J. Seal, the butchers.

J Seal butchersHaving been a vegetarian since 1973 this shop would never have had my custom, but I do have a clear memory of going there with my Mum, in those idyllic pre-school days. I loved it because there was sawdust on the floor that I could play with, and I passed many a happy while sitting on those rough wooden floorboards piling it up into sculptures, completely oblivious to the blood and guts above counter level, while my happy housewife Mum chatted to the butcher.

Later, when I started at Westfields, Mum worked part-time as a secretary for a local firm of architects in the same high street. Essex Lodge, the ancient building in which she worked, is still an architects’ practice:

Essex LodgeFor most of my primary school years  I ate lunch at the school canteen, which was in a similar Victorian former school building just around the corner in Cross Street; we would line up in a crocodile each lunchtime to walk around there for our dinner. (“Dinner”, “lunch,” “tea,” the terminology was always interchangeable in our “mixed class” family). I remember hating the food but dutifully forcing it down anyway: lumpy mashed potato, gristly mince, soggy sponge puddings with bland grey sauce. Later,  I preferred a packed lunch of sandwiches that I ate at a special table with a few other kids of the same persuasion.

Later still, in my last year or two at Westfields, I would come home to eat the sandwiches Mum would leave out for me when she left for her job at the architects, along with a little note. I got into the habit of writing a note back, for her to find when she got home in the afternoon, before school was out. These notes developed into a special correspondence connecting the two of us, spinning little stories to each other every day.

After Mum’s death I found one of these scrappy little notes amongst her papers, a particularly sweet one I had written to her that she had treasured enough to keep. This discovery unleashed a flood of memories of this precious, brief time, when our mother-daughter relationship was uncomplicated and tender, before the walls went up. But that’s another story, for another post.

Old Infant school entrance

The rear entrance of Westfields, which still stands, showing the original 1903 building date

Posted in 1930-1949, 1960s, Mum, Peggy Lane, nee Peigi Murray (maternal grandmother) | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

By The Factory Wall (object no. 142)

Factory wallThe above photograph shows Beverley Path in Barnes, one of the many hidden passages around the railway lines where the terraces of Victorian railway workers’ cottages,  council homes in my childhood, are now home only to the very rich. This wall along one side is very significant in my story and that of my family, and even more so now that the same process has been inflicted on my adoptive  home of Brixton. Gentrification.

Over the years I’ve noticed that, on discovering I am from Barnes, people tend to make a lot of false assumptions about me, my background and family, based on the kind of place that Barnes is today. But when my mother first lived there as a child in the 1930s, and even when I was born there in 1961, Barnes was an ordinary, if very green and leafy, part of London (well, Surrey, in fact: it didn’t become part of the city until Greater London was created in 1965 and swallowed up the new borough of Richmond upon Thames). My primary school, Westfields,  was surrounded by blocks of council flats on 3 sides and, on the 4th,  a working factory. My daily walk to school took me alongside 2 of the factory’s walls, including this one, where at this time of year the ground below would be littered with the tiny translucent, featherless bodies of baby sparrows, fallen from their nests below the eaves (not to mention the piles of white, yellow and grey dogshit that were everywhere in those days). I vividly recall that on hot summer days the factory doors would be open to reveal the clanking machinery and oily sweaty men inside. The factory, known as Omes or Beverley Works, made aeroplane parts during the second world war and car parts later. It was demolished in the 1970s to make way for a housing estate but the factory walls still stand, as does the ironwork gateway:

Beverley Works sign

Factory wall 2

The wall along Railway Side

Factory wall bolt

As a small child I often wondered what these bolts in the wall, at about my height, were for.

I recently paid a nostalgic visit to Barnes and was sad to see that the little pub just along the terrace from here, where the factory workers used to drink at the end of their shift (and where I drank myself in later years) has closed down. I remember it as the Manor Arms, a tiny, cosy wood-panelled room run by a landlord called Stewart Grainger, with a lovely old-fashioned vinyl jukebox, bar billiards and a guitar on the wall signed by Marc Bolan. In recent years it has been a fish restaurant and more recently a lovely bright little pub called the Idle Hour. I am sad to see it closed but maybe it will become a pub again.

The Idle HourThe Beverley Works factory is significant for my family story, too, because my Mum worked there during the war, and the experience changed her life. Without this experience she may never have met my Dad. I’ll let Mum tell this in her own words, from her memoirs:

“My next job, which was to have a profound change in my life, was with the local engineering firm, OMES Ltd at Beverley Works in Willow Avenue. I was secretary to the owner, Harold Aron, a German Jew, who set up this electro-forging plant, a modern system using electrical machines in place of the old fire-based forges. He had smuggled out of Germany a great press (as high as a house) together with its Jewish inventor, Mr Eumuco, who also worked there.

Mr Aron was a man of Quixotic temperament, who would hire and fire at will, swear and browbeat his managers, but who would also show great kindness to people. He was also a director of Rothmans, Rotax, and a firm making the newly invented Perspex.

His wife had been an opera singer and while in Italy had become acquainted with the Mora brothers who had invented the electro-forging machines. Mr Aron brought them over, bought houses for them in Hillersdon Avenue and Station Road, and they worked in the factory as charge hands.

Through a mutual friend he had given the job of accountant to a person of previous dual German and British nationality. He was Leslie Kingsley (born Kleeman). His father, a German Jew, had been managing director of the North British Locomotive Co. and before the war had gone with his family to Roumania [sic]. Leslie had witnessed the brutality of the Iron Guard when demanding identity cards of people on beaches who would not readily have had them to hand when in swimsuits. From an exclamation of disgust to another man on the beach he became involved in the anti-fascist underground movement. The man on the beach was a professor who told him what was happening in Roumania and introduced him to the resistance movement. One day he got a message from his contact that the fascists were on to him and he should get out of the country quickly. By this time the war had started and his parents had flown to south America and his two brothers to England where they changed their name to Kingsley and joined the army.

Leslie escaped to Palestine where he worked for the British army and eventually came to England and joined the RAF. By this time he was a communist. He was thoroughly interrogated by military intelligence and told them all he knew about what was happening in Roumania and about his involvement with the left wing. He had a minor accident while on physical training and was immediately discharged as unfit, which he believed was an excuse because of his communist links.

We shared an office at Omes and it was from him I learned about politics. Such was my political naivety that when the 1945 election came I asked Leslie, “What is the difference between the Labour and Communist parties?” He laughed and said, “Ask me that question again in a year’s time.” By then of course, I knew and joined the Communist Party in 1946.”

Which is how, 5 years later, she came to meet my Dad at a local Party meeting. Dad  had recently moved to new digs in Barnes from his first London digs in, as it happens, Brixton (where I later moved to from our home in Barnes: closing the circle).  But to return to Mum’s story:

“There was a strong communist group in the works.
Percy Glading, a Communist who had worked at Woolwich Arsenal, was “framed” by an MI5 agent and spent four years in prison. On his release he got the job of works manager at Omes. All the other managers would cow-tow and grovel to Mr Aron but Percy would stand his ground and swear back. He was the only staff member for whom Aron had respect.

Aron would send Christmas presents to various people, as did most firms. He would wrap them himself and then pass them to me to post off. All hell let loose on one occasion. I had put the wrong labels on identical looking packs. What a bonus for someone and a let-down for the other. Was a bribe involved?Such was the success of the work or Aron’s contacts that the factory was honoured by a visit from the government minister Sir Stafford Cripps. I was instructed to take down his speech in shorthand but was not provided with a desk so had to stand in the workshop surrounded by workers who were laying bets on whether I would get it all down or not and doing their best to distract me. No-one knew whether I succeeded or not and it is possible that I improvised a bit.

A landmine was dropped close to the works demolishing most of Brookwood Avenue, Willow Avenue and Cleveland Gardens. It was guesswork whether it was aimed at the factory or or the railway line and Barnes Bridge but it made space for a metallurgy laboratory to be erected on the Brookwood Avenue/Willow Avenue site. Taking a short cut across the bomb site to work I found an ancient coin, which may have been Roman.

At the end of the war Aron was told [by government officials] that if he wanted to continue to receive government business he must get rid of Percy Glading. The workers threatened to strike but Percy persuaded them not to. He took a golden handshake and went to work for the A.E.U.”

Percy’s widow, Rosa Glading, was a family friend who lived at the end of our road. She lived to be over 100 and was active, and activist, to the end. I didn’t know her late husband’s story until I read Mum’s account, and a brief trawl of the Internet now finds him portrayed only as a notorious spy, unquestionably guilty of the crime for which Mum says he was “framed.” History, as they say, is written by the victors.

This old factory wall in the heart of one of London’s most exclusive areas just goes to show that places, like people, are not always what they may seem at first glance, and it is always worth digging a little deeper to see beneath the surface.

Cracked factory wall

Crack in the factory wall

Posted in 1950s, 1960s, Communism, Mum | Tagged , , | 2 Comments

Home Again (Object 141)

Lewis broochI’m cheating a bit with this object as it wasn’t in my family until I bought it, new, in 2007. But it has family connotations, and a great family-related story attached to it. It is also one of the few pieces of jewellery to have survived the recent break-in at my home (see previous posts), on account of it being still attached to the coat I’d been wearing at a recent event for Burns Night. The object is a silver brooch in the shape of the islands of Lewis and Harris in the Outer Hebrides; my Grannie Lane came from Swainbost, Ness, on the western side of the topmost point of this map.

I have visited Lewis many times over the years on family holidays, but only once since my Mum died in 2001. In the summer of 2007 I had been through a relationship break-up and needed a holiday somewhere beautiful and peaceful. Knowing I always had a welcome waiting from my Hebridean cousins I took myself up there for a fortnight of proper rest and relaxation. Walking and cycling around Lewis’s exquisite beaches and moorlands, exploring the rocks and machair I had loved as  child, it felt like coming home, and was just what I needed. The stillness and serenity of Callanish, the endless open space and golden light. And it was good to catch up with my cousins, not having seen them since I had last visited with my mother in the 1990s. One of my cousins is director of the An Lanntair arts centre in Stornoway, where I bought this brooch. It’s the kind of gift I would have bought for my mother so on impulse decided to treat myself, and I love it. It was a wonderful holiday and I’m glad I still have this special souvenir.

Three years later this brooch brought me more surprises. In May 2010 I was coming to the end of 12 years managing a specialist academic library, and I went out on a high. The library served a university department that taught speech and language therapy. The students’ training included clinical work at the onsite clinic, attended by stroke and brain injury survivors as well as children with speech and language disorders. I loved the job in many ways but I was moving on to pursue other interests. My departure coincided with a special event celebrating the work of this department, and I was able to contribute something extra special to this occasion.

Some weeks before the event was due to take place, I attended a book signing by Grace Maxwell and Edwyn Collins, of whose music I was a big fan. Grace had written Falling and Laughing, a moving and tender account of their life together before and after the devastating stroke that had left Edwyn aphasic and paralysed.  The book details his determined struggle to overcome his condition and regain his lost language and music – with the help of some equally determined speech and language therapists. At the book signing I managed to overcome my fan’s nerves and ask if they would be interested in a book signing, or perhaps even a performance, at the event. To my surprise and delight they agreed, and were true to their word.  Edwyn and Grace duly turned up at the college with a band in tow, and Edwyn gave an incredibly moving and beautiful performance of some of his loveliest songs. Afterwards they signed copies of the book in the library, and chatted for hours to both the budding speech therapists  and the clinic patients (one of whom, a lifelong fan, had brought along his original Orange Juice records for Edwyn to sign).

At one point Edwyn noticed my brooch and forced out the words “Scottish island”. I replied yes, that’s Lewis where my grandmother came from. Grace said they had been there recently as Edwyn had performed at the arts centre. “An Lanntair in Stornoway? My cousin runs that!” “Not Roddy Murray? We’ve known him since the ’80s!” It turned out that Edwyn and Roddy were close friends at Glasgow Art College back in the day, and remained good friends. I heard a lot about my cousin that evening – not least that he had once been in a post-punk band called the Dream Boys with their friends Craig Ferguson and Peter Capaldi!

It was a wonderful occasion and one of my proudest moments, in both my personal and professional life, and an absolute joy and an honour to meet Edwyn and Grace. I presented them with a bottle of good malt whisky to thank them, and because of the Glasgow connection I also gave them a copy of my Dad’s memoirs.  I hadn’t clue there would be a Hebridean connection as well. It really is a small world.

Edwyn Collins and Boz Boorer

Edwyn Collins performing at the college with guitarist Boz Boorer


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The one that got away (Object 140)

Manx Cat brooch

The very lucky Manx Cat

This souvenir brooch from the Isle of Man belonged to my mother, but I don’t know the story behind it. I don’t remember her ever mentioning having been there, but she may well have done, or perhaps it was a gift from someone else’s holiday. I don’t recall her ever wearing it, and it doesn’t look as if it has been removed from its original card mount very often. However, this lucky Manx cat brooch now has its own story.

It lived in this simple wooden jewellery box along with all my Mum’s cheap jewellery: various inexpensive brooches and necklaces given to her over the years, many from us children.

Mum's jewellery box

Mum’s jewellery box

This box lives on my dressing table,  but I keep Mum’s other jewellery box, containing her valuables, well hidden. My own jewellery, mostly a collection of unusual, inexpensive but irreplaceable silver charms, I kept in a miniature antique wooden chest of drawers which lived on my mantelpiece. I had intended to write a blog post about that little chest of drawers, as it had belonged to my Mum when she was a girl, when she kept her handkerchiefs in it. She gave it to me when I was young and I treasured it. It survived a burglary at a flat I was living in back in 1992, when the thieves raided it for gold and, finding none apart from a cheap gold chain I had won in a Christmas cracker, left me my charms and charming little chest of drawers. Sadly I never got around to writing that post, because 2 weeks ago I was not so lucky. This time the thieves took the whole chest, silver charms and all; apparently silver is more valuable these days.

My mother’s wooden box was left behind, empty. They took the contents, including her silver watch and several brooches I remember buying her on holidays in Ireland and Scotland. Other pieces had been gifts from my Dad or brothers or her many friends. And Mum’s wartime ARP Warden badge, which, again, I had intended to write a blog post about, but didn’t get around to it…

I had never really examined this unremarkable wooden box before, but now it was empty I noticed for the first time the name Watson stuck inside the lid. So this item is another keepsake from Auntie in Churt.

Watson label

Tidying up after the burglary the next day, as I was picking up the pieces both physically and emotionally, I found this brooch lying on the bedroom floor. It must have fallen out when they emptied the box into my rucksack (also stolen). The little no-tail has thus proved its good luck credentials, and I intend to wear Mum’s lucky Manx cat at any time in future when I may feel in need of a little bit of luck.

Manx cat brooch


Posted in "Auntie" (Mabel Zoe Watson, Grandad Lane's cousin), Jewellery, Mum | Tagged | Leave a comment