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:
“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 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.
I 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:
And later, in glorious technicolour, a typical 1960s day in Richmond Park with our Auntie Margaret:
Such 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.
Aboard a shipwreck train
Give my umbrella to the Rain Dogs
For I am a Rain Dog, too.
- Tom Waits