Rain dogs (objects 149-154)

Lead figurine dogs and umbrella This tiny lead ornament, which is less than 2 inches (5cm) high, is a precious souvenir of someone who was hugely important in my childhood (as well as offering an irresistible opportunity for me to use another favourite song title). Auntie Margaret gave me many animals for my collection of “ordiments” over the years; these little rain dogs, which must be over a century old now, were in fact a gift from her elderly parents. Margaret also gave me these two, which I named Terry and Patch, fellow survivors in the Usmeum:

china dogs

Terry and Patch

“Auntie” Margaret Press was not a relative, but was my Mum’s best friend since her school days. They had met when my Mum, Eleanor, started at a new school after the Lane family’s move to Barnes when she was 11, and they remained close friends and neighbours for the rest of Margaret’s life (Mum’s other close childhood friend,  Joan, having moved to Dorset when she married). Mum wrote about that time in her memoirs:

I was admitted to the second year class, Upper Third, of East Sheen County School for Girls, a grammar school in Hertford Avenue where I had a difficult time. Having missed the first year I had to spend the summer before joining the school having intensive coaching in maths and French in order to be standard on entry. As the only new girl I was subjected to unkind attention from much of the class but I made another good friend, Margaret Press, and we had a lot of fun, mostly harmless but sometimes ending in having to stand outside the Head’s room for punishment.

At the end of my first year there I noticed some girls making a note of my exam results as they were announced. Fortunately I had plenty of passes and to my amazement gained a credit for Art for a ghastly still-life painting. I probably failed history because I found having to learn lists of kings and battles so boring that most of that lesson was spent gazing out of the window where across the road cattle were grazing in the meadow belonging to the Priory.

The Art mistress was quite eccentric and seemed to be more absorbed in her own work than in observing the class, so one day Margaret and I hopped out of one of the windows, ducked past the music class, and spent the rest of the period larking about in the cloakroom. When the division bell sounded we walked into the classroom as the others were leaving, collected our belongings and walked out again without the teacher having missed us.

This is a lovely snapshot of Mum and Margaret’s schooldays. (Incidentally I attended the same school many years later, in its first year as Shene Comprehensive;  the cows were long gone by then. It is now an Academy, and before my time was Shene County Grammar School for boys, attended by my next door neighbour Alistair Mitchell. Alistair is still a friend and I went back there with him in recent years to see a gig by old boy Vic Godard, who also attended Westfields Primary. And yes, the above reference is to the famous Priory hospital in Roehampton. It’s a small world!)

Margaret with, I think, her brothers in 1946

Margaret with, I think, her brothers in 1946

Margaret was a wonderful woman and the scene described above really captures her cheeky and take-no-prisoners attitude to life. She was extremely fond of us 3 kids, and whilst she never married or had children herself, she dedicated her life to helping other people’s children: especially those who had lost or been abandoned by those other people. I don’t know if Margaret’s single status was by choice or circumstance, there being few eligible men available after the second world war, but she never seemed troubled by it. I do know she had at least one marriage proposal, although she never knew that I knew.

Throughout my childhood Auntie Margaret lived just 2 streets away from us in Rectory Road, so we were always in and out of each others’ houses. One late evening when I was about 12 I heard her come in when I had already gone to bed. There was much commotion in the hallway below, so, curious, I crept out of bed and crouched on the stairs to hear Margaret’s deep voice announcing theatrically: “I had a proposal of MARRIAGE today!” It was her boss who, she went on to describe with equal parts delight and amusement, “Took me in his arms and said, ‘I need someone to look after me!'” My mum seemed thrilled at the news and they went inside and out of earshot. The proposal was never mentioned again. I like to think that my Auntie Margaret was a happily independent woman, as I have become myself at around the same age she was then, but I will never know for sure.

Margaret was certainly ahead of her time with her career. She trained as a social worker in the 1950s and specialised in child social care. She was one of those pioneering social workers of that generation who revolutionised children’s homes, changing them from formal, almost military  institutions to places that resembled actual homes, with “house parents” rather than prison wardens. We now know that terrible abuse took place in these children’s homes too, but the intention of people like Margaret Press was good: she really cared about those children. My own parents, still childless after their first few years of marriage, considered adopting a child and became “social parents” to a girl called Amy who lived in one of those homes. She had been abandoned by her own parents, and my Mum and Dad befriended her, looking after her and taking her out at weekends. They were hoping to adopt Amy, but when she turned 14 and was old enough to work, she was reclaimed by her birth parents. At that time, parents had the right to do this, regardless of how they had treated their children. My parents never heard from her again and I know Mum carried a sense of loss over this child to whom she had become so attached. Later, with 3 children of their own, my parents became “social parents” to another child from a Putney care home. Linda, who was about my age, became part of our family and was very important to my Mum for the rest of her life; when she grew up and had 2 sons, they were like grandchildren for her.

Auntie Margaret was very much part of our lives. She was an accomplished seamstress and would make me beautiful dresses, which I rarely appreciated. I remember a school Christmas party when I was about 5, being completely entranced by Sally Mills’ pink, sparkly, gauzy fairy dress, and pestering my Mum for one of my own. On Christmas day I unwrapped my gift from Auntie Margaret to find shiny leaves of green and blue satin, with a matching green stalk cap. She had made me a beautiful flower fairy dress. I never wore it, and I fear I failed to hide my disappointment.

I know now that I never appreciated my Auntie Margaret enough. By the time I reached my moody teenage years, I had placed a distance between us. At that time, I am ashamed to admit, I became a terrible snob and a worse prude. Margaret had a coarse, cheeky sense of humour, something I would have come to love and even relish later, but which I found distasteful and embarrassing then. If she shared a slightly indelicate joke with my Dad I would haughtily disapprove (most probably out of jealousy). I never had the chance to get over myself and enjoy my lovely, life-loving, ribald auntie because “later” never came: always a smoker, Margaret developed lung cancer and died in her early 50s. It pains me now to remember how little I seemed to care at the time, unless that was some kind of coping mechanism. My Mum was distraught, having lost her best friend, and I was no help to her at all; I didn’t even attend the funeral. I did select one item as a memento, a tiny wooden flying goose from Canada that hung on Auntie Margaret’s living room wall. I have no idea why I chose that item, except that I liked it (much like this one from another “Auntie”), but I have kept it to this day as a memento of her.

carved wooden flying gooseAfter my own Mum’s death 4 decades years later, I found this photograph album amongst  her things.

Photo albumI had hardly thought about Auntie Margaret in the intervening years, and discovering this small treasure made me realise just what I had lost all those years ago. She must have made this for my Mum, possibly when she knew she was dying, as it is a record of their lives together, and of ours. There are photographs of their youthful holidays in Stratford upon Avon and the Lake District, some featuring my Grannie Lane, with captions that show Margaret’s sense of humour:

1950s holiday snaps dsc06515 dsc06514Then there is the photo story of my parents’ marriage and the arrival of each of us  children, lovingly chosen and captioned:

Family photos

“The first commitment”: Brother 1


“The Watchmaker” (that being his Dad’s profession at the time)

dsc06521 dsc06522


“The newcomer, 1963” – me.

And later, in glorious technicolour, a typical 1960s day in Richmond Park with our Auntie Margaret:


Pen PondsSuch fond memories, and such a treasure to have this lasting evidence of Margaret’s love for my mother and for us. Had she lived, and had I allowed her, she would have been a wonderful friend and ally through those difficult teenage years, just the kind of auntie a girl needs. And when I lost my own closest childhood friend at the age of 42, I went through some of what my Mum must have suffered then, and understood her so much more, too late. Just as I now appreciate my lovely, loving Auntie Margaret, many decades too late.

Auntie Margaret

Margaret Press in the 1970s, shortly before her death

Aboard a shipwreck train
Give my umbrella to the Rain Dogs
For I am a Rain Dog, too.

  • Tom Waits


Posted in 1950s, 1960s, 1970s, Mum, Ornaments ("ordiments"), Photographs | Tagged | Leave a comment

Happy Christmas, my old china (objects 145 to 148)

china ponies

Cobweb and Sinbad

Despite the title of this blog, I haven’t actually written many posts about the ornaments (or “ordiments”) in the Usmeum. So here is a Christmassy story about some of them.

One Christmas when I was about 15 my parents gave me money instead of a gift, for me to choose my own. They were surprised when I spent the money on these two Beswick porcelain ponies for my treasured collection of “ordiments”, and clearly disappointed, as they hoped I had outgrown such interests by then. I hadn’t; in fact, I was devastated to wake up and find no stocking at the end of my bed that Christmas morning as they had decided I was too old for Santa (or Father Christmas, as we called him then). I was still clinging on to childhood with all my might and, although of course I hadn’t actually believed in the myth for many years, I still relished the traditional stocking with its treats and sweets and tangerine and a shiny penny. And I chose my ponies, from a homeware shop in Sheen, with loving care: I thought the Welsh Mountain pony and Highland pony were the most lifelike of the Beswick collection in the shop. Looking at them now, I hate to think what the rest of the models were like if these were the most lifelike – the eyes are especially disturbing and nothing like a real horse’s. Cobweb and Sinbad, as I named them, bear the usual scars and injuries of any china animal that shared a home with our resident flesh and blood animal: Frisky was a cat who would never walk across a floor if there was furniture to be jumped on instead, regardless of whatever fragile items may be placed on said furniture. Sinbad has lost his ears but Cobweb’s have been re-attached by our resident horse surgeon (my Dad; see some of his other handiwork here).

The following year, Mum and Dad conceded defeat and bought me this china Arab foal, which I note is stamped “Made in the USSR” so was probably bought there on a trip or at a local Communist Party fundraiser. I was thrilled with my present, which I named Albatross, and treasured it for years. I know it’s a tacky thing, but I am still  fond of it.

China Arab foal


I have kept these objects for purely sentimental reasons, as they are not the kind of thing I would buy today. So I did grow out of it eventually, although, I’m embarrassed to recall now, these ornaments followed me to my first flat when I left home at 18. I must have been so attached to them I couldn’t leave them behind with the rest of my childhood. In recent years I was half hoping my nieces might develop similar fixations to my childhood horse obsession, so that I could pass these treasures on to them, but (luckily for them) they never did.

Another year, I was thrilled to receive riding lessons for Christmas.  I was horse mad but riding was so expensive  in London, this was a really special gift. And it gave my Dad another opportunity to exercise his artistic skills, as I was reminded when I found this envelope in the archives:
xmas-ridingEveryone knew I collected china animals, so I often received them at Christmas. This one was a surprise gift from one of my brothers, I forget which, but  the surprise was that it was such an unusually thoughtful gift. I always liked its cheeky grin and I think I called it Tweetypie after the cartoon character:

China duckling


I had hundreds of “ordiments” but I have only kept the ones that are most precious to me, because they remind me of of a special time or place or, in most cases, person. These tacky trinkets are part of the thread that connects me to my past, to my childhood, and to those loved ones who have passed on. Christmas is a poignant time for remembering my parents, and other relatives and friends, and these little mementos help to bring them back to me.  I will be writing some more posts about the “ordiments” in the new year.

Christmas 1972

Me and my brothers, Christmas 1972

Posted in 1970s, Ornaments ("ordiments"), Parents | Tagged | Leave a comment

Shaggy dog story

Xmas tagIt’s Christmas Day, so here’s another old card from the archives. It looks as if it was once a Christmas card, but has been converted into a gift tag by the judicious application of some pinking shears – a common practice in our family in the 1960s. I know it is from that decade because of the writing on the back, in my Grandad R’s familiar hand:

Xmas tag messageThis tag must have accompanied a gift to us 3 children as we are all named. I am so glad my parents kept it. Not only has my Glaswegian “Granpa”, who died when I was 8,  given us 6 fond kisses here, he has also added a special note just for me, knowing my fondness for animals: “How do you like the wee kitten and doggie, S__?”

The fact that my Uncle Tommy also gets a mention brings back a particular Christmas memory from my childhood. Tommy never married, and moved down south with Grandad after my Grannie died. One Christmas morning we were all leaving the house to go and visit Dad’s family, we had a car so I must have been 5 or 6 at the time. Just as we were about to leave I was mortified to realise that, although we had gifts for everyone else, I didn’t have anything to give my Uncle Tommy. I insisted on holding everyone up while I found something, eventually settling on a half-crown, which I dutifully wrapped up in paper and sticky tape. Uncle Tommy had the good grace to be pleased when I presented him with my gift.

Tommy died some years ago,  having lived a reclusive life for many years. He always had dogs, which he loved. I wonder if he would have remembered this little shaggy dog story.

Uncle Tommy

Uncle Tommy in his youth, Glasgow

Posted in 1960s, Glasgow family, Grandad R. (paternal grandfather) | 1 Comment

A brush with fame (Object no. 144)

Basil Brush ticketAs I mentioned in my previous post, today is my birthday, so I am celebrating with 2 birthday related posts in 1 day. This object that I found in the archives holds a very special memory for me.

My parents always made our birthdays special occasions. When we were small there was usually a party with friends, and when we were older, we got taken out for a treat. My mum would make the traditional round sponge birthday cake, but she would also make a 2nd cake, made of Swiss roll mixture in a flat square tin. Once cooled, the flat cake would be cut into the shape of whatever we wanted, which for me was usually an animal: I can remember a dog and a rabbit and a pony. But my 7th birthday was really special.

Where we lived in Barnes was a short bus ride from the BBC studios at White City, and you could often get free tickets to be part of the live audience when the shows were recorded. For my 7th birthday Mum managed to get tickets for me and some friends to  see the Basil Brush show live. I loved Basil Brush and I had a bit of a crush on Mr Derek, his co-presenter. To be there and see the show being filmed live was a huge thrill, and I shouted and cheered so much that I spent the next few days in bed with a throat infection (I remember our kindly family doctor, Dr Brown, coming to see me with a gentle reprimand for having strained my voice so much). But it was a small price to pay for seeing my beloved Basil Brush, and Mr Derek, in the flesh! (As it were).

So of course, my cake that year was in the shape of the vulpine TV star. My mum did a beautiful job but sadly here are no pictures. Except for those in my head, 48 years later, which still make me smile.

Posted in 1960s, Letters, cards and documents | Tagged | 1 Comment

Oh, what a card!

Horse drawn caravan cardFollowing on from my previous post, here’s another picture of a horse drawn caravan, this time on a birthday card given to me on my 11th birthday by my Auntie Margaret. Margaret Press was not a relative but was my Mum’s closest friend since their schooldays, who lived just 2 streets from us throughout my childhood. She was a lovely auntie and I will write about her life in another post. This card just serves to introduce this post, which is all about birthday cards. I’ve previously featured cards given to both my mum and dad and to my Grannie Lane, but this time it’s all about me, because today is my birthday.

I’m glad these cards have been kept, they are happy reminders of my childhood. Birthdays were always special, with a party or a treat and not one, but 2 cakes made by our mum. Here is a selection of cards my Mum and Dad gave me over the years – can you spot a theme emerging?:

dsc06365Even more precious are these cards from Dad’s dad, my Grandad R., because I saw so little of him before he died when I was 8. I remember a kind and gentle old Glaswegian gent, always dressed nattily in 3 piece suit and fob watch.

dsc06363 dsc06355 dsc06358dsc06364The inscriptions on these cards in “Gran’pop”‘s neat but shaky handwriting show such affection for me, that 50 years on I am quite moved to read them. Especially as one of my clearest memories of him is one that shames me even now. I was about 4 and there was a family gathering at our house. Gran’pop was sitting in  folding chair in the garden, smoking a pipe. Full of mischief (and quite probably ginger pop) I thought it a great game to steal his walking stick and run away with it. Leaning over to catch me, the chair collapsed, trapping him awkwardly. As I ran around squealing with delight, he had to call for help from the grown ups indoors – who were not amused, and sent me straight to my room. I’m so sorry, Gran’pop!

Grandad R. with Mum

Grandad R. with Mum

I’ve also found this treasure from my Glaswegian family in the archives. As I’ve written before, my Uncle John was a gifted artist. So I’m glad to have found this original J.F.D.G.R. in my card collection:


dsc06370 The Glaswegian humour evidently runs in the family. Here are 2 more examples of home-made cards from my brothers:

dsc06371..and the tender messages inside…

dsc06375dsc06376Sigh. Thanks, bros. They both came to meet me for my birthday this week, which was nice, as we rarely see each other (although I still had to pay for my own meal. Oh well, nothing changes!). So I’ll end on this one, another from my parents, because this sentiment is more like it: “A day to do just what you please.”

Birthday cardWhich is exactly what I am doing today, so I’m off to the pub.

Posted in 1960s, Glasgow family, Grandad R. (paternal grandfather), Letters, cards and documents, Parents | Tagged | Leave a comment

Long Overdue (object no. 143)

The Secret garden I hate to part with books, but recently had to have a long overdue clear out (my blog name Hoarder of Babylon being dangerously close to the truth!) and realised that some of my childhood treasures are just too far gone to be saved, and have now gone to the great recycling centre in the sky. I did however take the opportunity to reacquaint myself with some old friends in the process, to see if they had stood the test of time any better than some cringeworthy examples from the mid-20th century that I could name. I was pleasantly surprised.

My favourite childhood author was Monica Edwards, whose stories of adventurous children and their ponies from Punchbowl Farm and Romney Marsh I always sought out at the local library. Re-reading No Mistaking Corker today, the first in the Punchbowl Farm series (published in 1947) , was reassuring. Although the Thornton children may be fairly typical of the plucky posh kids found in most children’s literature of the time (their absent-minded artist father simply writes a cheque when they get into trouble with the law, and all is right with the world), the cast of supporting characters make for refreshing reading. The children befriend a travelling fair community, and rather than being portrayed as “dirty tinkers” as they often would have been in those days,  the travellers are kind and generous and adhere to strict moral codes. Perhaps this portrayal is overly sentimental, but it’s a great story. It resonated with me partly because the story concerns the Thornton family’s holiday in a horse-drawn gypsy caravan, just like the one my own family enjoyed in Ireland in 1970 (but with added horse-thieving villains). The line illustrations by Anne Bullen remind me of my dad’s sketches from that trip:

No Mistaking Corker illustration

Illustration by Anne Bullen. This could be  a sketch of myself on that holiday.

Irish gy[sy caravan sketch

Dad’s sketch of our caravan

My copy of No Mistaking Corker is covered in mould now so can’t be kept, and all the others I read came from Castelnau library, but I may  be seeking out more of these stories in second hand bookshops and online so I can read them all again. Punchbowl Farm was set near the Devil’s Punchbowl in Surrey, which we often visited as children during our holidays at Churt.

Another casualty of my poor conservation skills is the Puffin edition of The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson-Burnett, pictured above. Falling apart, the pages brown with age, this copy has also gone to be pulped. But I have saved the slip of paper I found inside it, a memento of my childhood and a signifier of things to come:

dsc06292The book must have been bought second hand, probably at a jumble sale or summer fair, as I don’t know who the inscribed  “Georgina Bates” was. But I do recognise the home-made library due-date slip, the glue long since dried and loosened from the page. A reminder of the “B & S library” that I and my best friend next door, Briony, created from our book collections and lent to family and friends, documented in a previous post. I was pleased to find this evidence in the archives, just after I attended the national libraries and museums demonstration in London on 5th November. As a librarian and activist (and one of the people who occupied our local library when the council closed it last March), I had to be there. I don’t want to see our precious public libraries run for private profit – especially, in the case of my local one, as a gym – so I wouldn’t condone private libraries as such. But this reminder of my attempts at running a library aged 10 made me smile.

I have just returned from a work trip to Ethiopia, where I attended the opening ceremonies of 2 public libraries supported by the charity I work for. The irony is not lost on me: in my day job I help to develop libraries in some of the poorest countries in the world, while here in one of the richest, they are being closed down.

My career as a librarian, though I didn’t know it then,  started way back in 1972 with the B & S library. Who could have foreseen that one day it would take me to such exotic places?


Opening ceremony at Harar Public Library, Ethiopia


Posted in 1930-1949, 1960s, 1970s, Books | Tagged , | Leave a comment

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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