Common People (objects 157-159)

Paxton Chadwick pony lino cut

“Jill” by Paxton Chadwick

This lovely lino cut of a Dartmoor pony by Paxton Chadwick is one of my favourite pictures. It was given to me for my 18th birthday by the artist’s widow, Lee Chadwick. It wasn’t framed but she had added a note with her late husband’s framing instructions: it should have a white frame with a grey mount, with more space below than above the picture. The framers followed his instructions to the letter, which pleased Lee, whose note, I remember, told me that “he had an eye for such things.”

I never met “Chad”, as the artist was known; he died the year I was born. Lee came into our lives a few years later, when her son Peter lodged in our attic as a student, and she became one of my parents’ closest friends for the rest of their lives. Jill, the pony model for the picture, had been Peter’s childhood pet who lived in a field next to their home on Leiston Common in Suffolk (Jill’s other job was to help preserve this plot of natural heathland, as myxamatosis had decimated the local rabbit population that formerly grazed it). Years later, in 1981, myself and a friend had an adventurous holiday camping out in what was still known as “Jill’s Field” for a couple of weeks.

“Jill’s Field” in 1981

We loved it there, using it as  a base to explore the local countryside and sights such as Aldeburgh and Saxmundham. The wildlife was abundant, with swallows nesting nearby and a pair of ancient tortoises living in the back garden.


One of Lee’s tortoises enjoying a dandelion

It wasn’t the first time I had stayed in Leiston, as we had a couple of family holidays at Lee’s place when I was a child. The Chadwicks had designed the bungalow themselves in the 1940s as an artist’s studio, flooded with light from all sides (essential as Leiston had no electricity then and Chad worked by paraffin lamp),  and surrounded by the expanse of wild Suffolk Sandlings heathland that is Leiston Common. I remember one late summer holiday when I slept in a tiny room full of ripening apples, a smell that still takes me back to that magical time.

Lee Chadwick

Lee Chadwick outside her home in 1981

Of all my parents’ many and diverse friends, I think Lee Chadwick was my favourite. She was a truly remarkable and special person, who lived an extraordinary life. Born Lee Bosence in Battersea in 1909 to a family of herbalists, she developed an early passion for nature and wildlife when the family moved to Surrey at the outbreak of the first world war. She studied English and Psychology at Bedford College in London and her first career as a teacher brought her to Leiston in 1937, to teach at the progressive Summerhill school founded by A.S. Neill. It was here that she met Chad, who taught art at the school, as well as being a member of the Communist party who had succeeded, against all odds, in being elected to the formerly Tory-held local council. Lee joined the Party around this time and also served as a Communist councillor for Leiston: a considerable achievement in such a Tory stronghold.  (Like my parents, she left the Party in 1986 and joined the short-lived Democratic Left, writing a regular nature column for their newspaper Seven Days).

During the Second World War Lee worked in the Garrett Engineering Works in nearby Sizewell and in the Land Army,  while Chad served in the armed forces (which also requisitioned their house on the common for the duration of the war). She also became a full-time local organiser for the Party at this time, as well as secretary of the East Anglian Federation of Women for Peace. After the war they had their son, and Lee raised him plus a flock of free range chickens on their land, while Chad became a successful nature illustrator for Penguin and later wrote and illustrated the Pantoscope series produced by Cassell. His illustrations were exquisite in their detail and sensitivity (there is a nice tribute here). Sadly, Chad died of cancer in 1961, and Cassell asked Lee to complete the text for the series. Her research for these booklets led Lee to embark on her second career: by the time we met her a few years later, she was a published book author.

As a child, I loved to write stories and dreamed of being a writer myself one day, so to meet a real live author was very exciting, even if she did write non-fiction rather than “stories.” Her books included the agricultural study Seeds of Plenty in a Hungry World (Methuen, 1968); a book about Lighthouses and Lightships (Dobson, 1971) that I remember my Dad ordering from the local library when it came out (but I was sad to see it withdrawn from stock some years later when I worked there, never having been borrowed); an account of her Cuban Journey (Dobson, 1975); and the culmination of her lifelong fascination and love for the Suffolk countryside, In Search of Heathland (Dobson, 1982). Lee took a keen interest in my writing and always made time to read my stories and talk to me about it whenever she visited. She had such a gentle grace about her, seeming so deeply fascinated in whatever you had to say that even a small child like me could feel that my words and opinions were just as important and valid as those of the adults around me. Later when I studied comparative religion at university we had many long philosophical discussions on the topic.

We shared a love of nature and the “ordiments” that she gave me tended to be more scientifically interesting than most of my china animals: a polished conch shell, a tiny tortoise made of walnut shells, a lump of teal green copper ore (none of these have survived in the Usmeum, but I remember them well). This blog is the nearest I have ever come to those childhood ambitions, but I like to think Lee would have approved of my efforts. (I know she would have loved the campaign to save our local library, which saw me sleeping there for a few nights during an occupation).

By the 1980s Lee was physically quite frail, but this didn’t stop her determined campaign against the building of the Sizewell nuclear power station on her beloved heathland. Although the campaign failed to stop it being built, the subsequent publication of her meticulously researched book led to Suffolk County Council refusing planning permission for a third reactor at Sizewell.

In Search of HeathlandI now have my parents’ copy of In Search of Heathland, and looking at it now, I wish I had paid more attention at the time and discussed it with Lee. It is a beautiful book which incorporates exquisite pull-out illustrations, one of which, British Reptiles, is from an unfinished work on British flora and fauna that Chad was working on when he died:

Paxton Chadwick British SnakesLee had such a good relationship with her publisher, Dennis Dobson, that she was invited to holiday with the Dobsons at their home, which was then the ancient Brancepeth Castle in Durham – and she took my parents along for the trip! They had a wonderful time, as they did on many other memorable holidays with Lee, to whom they were both very close. They travelled to Hungary together to visit my parents’ friends, and in the late 1980s they drove up to Scotland on an epic journey to Mum’s relatives on the Isle of Lewis. I have some lovely photos of the 3 of them on that holiday:

Dad and Lee Scotland

Dad and Lee at the border

Mum and Lee at Stornoway Harbour

Lee and Mum at Stornoway Harbour

Lee surveys the Lewis machair


Last Christmas when I visited the Northampton branch of the Usmeum (Brother 2’s house) I noticed something on the mantelpiece that I recognised from our home:

Times Challenger tankard

The tankard commemorates an important workers’ struggle, but inside I found a note that marks something more personal:

Lee Chadwick note

“To commemorate a memorable husband/wife partnership for peace and socialism & in appreciation of many kindnesses to Lee Chadwick and Peter, all good wishes for 1980”

For me, this 38 year old slip of paper expresses perfectly the connection that Lee shared with my parents, a friendship rooted deep in the solidarity of their beliefs.

Lee became increasingly frail in her 80s, but no less active. In the end, she outlived both my parents, having treated her heart condition with a deep relaxation therapy that enabled her to stay on in her beloved home until her death in 2003 at the age of 93. My eldest niece was born around this time and we all travelled to Suffolk for a special memorial ceremony at the studio, where Peter, a successful artist himself, now lives with his wife Bridget.

I treasure many special memories of Lee’s long friendship with my family; these items represent just a few. I feel very privileged to have had such an uncommonly interesting and inspirational person in my life.

Dad and Lee

A celebration meal with Dad and Lee at our home

Lee Chadwick

Posted in 1930-1949, 1960s, 1970s, Books, Communism, Dad, Mum, Paintings and sketches, Parents | Tagged , | 1 Comment

Miss You (object no.156)

Porcelain calfThis little porcelain calf ornament is another one of the china animals from my collection that I’ve kept for sentimental reasons, even though this one was not a gift from a relative or friend or anyone else: I bought it for myself, on a sixth form college student union trip to Copenhagen when I was 17. The sentiment is for the friend I went with, who sadly is no longer with us. Today would have been her 55th birthday,  and I have spent this lovely spring day going through the meagre collection of letters and photos that remain from our 40 year friendship, a friendship that began at nursery school and only ended with her untimely death aged 43.

Michele was a sweet child who loved animals, always out walking her dog Judy on Barnes common because her parents wanted her out of the house. An unwanted and unplanned child, born late to parents who had already raised one daughter, the lack of love in her life had tragically predictable consequences. But I loved her, and I miss my old friend deeply.

We went to the same nursery school, primary school and Sunday school, but we didn’t become close friends until a mutual love of pop music brought us together at secondary school. By the time we were 16 we were going out to see bands together, much to my parents’ disapproval: they saw Michele as a bad influence, which, in a way, she was, an influence for which I remain eternally grateful. I was a pony obsessed goody two shoes until, in my 15th summer, a DJ saved my life, and it was Michele who took me under her wing and mentored me through this new world of fashion and pop.

Barnes School class of 77

Our class in 1977. Goody two shoes on the far left is me, complete with white socks and Blue Peter badge. Michele is 3rd from right, with a trendy cardigan for a blazer.

We were regulars at the Kensington music pub, though we had just missed the heyday of pub rock when the likes of Dr Feelgood and Brinsley Schwarz played there. Unlike me, Michele had a record player in her tiny bedroom in one of the railway cottages on Beverley Path (council houses then, millionaire’s residences now) and we would line up the latest singles from Fleetwood Mac or David Bowie or Santana and sing along as we prepared for our Saturday night out. One favourite was the Rolling Stones’ Miss You which she bought when it was released and played over and over again. We dreamed of leaving home, getting jobs and sharing a flat, so that we could go out every night to gigs and parties just like our older friends did. By the time I went to sixth form college to study for my A levels, Michele, not being the academic type,  had already left school behind for a full time job at Hammersmith council, and she grew up fast. By the time I reached my 18th birthday, finished my A levels and planned to leave home, she had beaten me to it, and moved in with her musician boyfriend, a man 16 years older than her who had played bass with many of the greats (I remember seeing him on Top of the Pops, backing Dusty Springfield. My mate’s boyfriend on TOTP!!). He didn’t like her going out with her young friends, so we didn’t see so much of each other, but we stayed in touch. Sadly he was the first, and by no means the worst, of several men who controlled or abused her in various ways for the rest of her life. There were plenty of happy times, the memories of which I treasure, especially when she had her adored children. But eventually life took its toll, and we lost her that tragic Whistun bank holiday weekend in 2005.

But before all that, we did have this one brief teenage holiday together, a few days on a ferry to Denmark. It was really a 4 day party on a boat, and we had a lot of fun, especially in the disco bar: Michele loved to dance. We befriended a gang of boys who were real clowns, and kept us entertained with their antics, which included streaking around the boat (well, this was the 1970s). We stayed friends with “King Kev and his Merry Mooners” for some time afterwards, they even came to my 18th birthday party later that year, dressed in kilts in honour of its being St Andrews’ Day. The friendship eventually petered out, and I sometimes wonder what became of those crazy guys.

We had just 3 hours to explore Copenhagen when we got there, which included a tour of the famous porcelain works. Despite my new interests I had not yet outgrown my childhood collection of china animals and I spent ages choosing a new one, with a few pounds I had saved from my Saturday library job. I chose this sweet little calf, which I named Heidi. Michele chose a tiny mouse sitting on a cube of Swiss cheese, which, as I watched in horror, she quietly closed her hand around and slipped unseen into her bag. I was scandalised – she actually stole it! But that was Michele: no shame, no fear, but a heart of gold. She kept her little china mouse for years, and when she died, I inherited her pet, a silver grey gerbil named Pearl who had the run of my flat for the last year of her life. I’m glad I still have Heidi the calf to remind me of our teenage adventures.

Michele and twins

Michele with her twin daughters, and me, 1990s

Happy birthday, Michele. Girl, I miss you. X

Posted in 1960s, 1970s, Ornaments ("ordiments") | Leave a comment

Elephant March (for Miles) (object 155)

Wade Elephant lineLike the animals in my previous post, this family of china elephants is another treasured “ordiment” from an “auntie,” Auntie Peggy, another Margaret who was not a real auntie but a close family friend. In my mind this charming quintet is always associated with the Jungle Book film, so perhaps she gave it to me shortly after we saw it at the cinema. Being animal mad I loved the film, and these elephants walking in a line reminded me of Colonel Hathi and his herd. I also thought they reflected my own family: Dad, Mum, and us 3 kids, with the little one (that’s me) bringing up the rear. This photo with a £2 coin gives an idea of the size:
Wade 1950s elephant familyThe second smallest has lost half his trunk, probably due to a run-in with Frisky; but for that, it seems this little porcelain family, made by Wade in the 1950s, might have been worth a fair few pounds. I doubt I could part with them though, as this “ordiment” is the only object I have that connects me with Auntie Peggy.

Auntie Peggy

Auntie Peggy (left) with my Grandad, Dad and brothers, 1960s

Like my Mum’s best friend Auntie Margaret, Dorothy “Peggy” Miles was a pioneering social worker, and I believe my parents became friends with her when she worked with Margaret as a house mother at a children’s home. She lived not far from us in Sheen, though her own home life was not reflected in this nuclear elephant family. Peggy was a single parent, raising her daughter Maggie alone after escaping from an abusive marriage.

[A side note here: It was only after my mother’s death, following a chance remark by  a friend at her funeral, that I realised something about my mum. The friend was paying tribute to my mother’s kindness, explaining that when her husband left her – a shocking and shameful thing back in the 1960s – Mum had been the first person to call round and offer help, because, coming from a “broken home” herself, she understood what the friend was going through. A penny dropped for me then, as I suddenly realised that, for that time, there were an unusually high number of single parent families in our social circle – all women whose husbands had left them, as my grandfather had left my Grannie when my Mum was young. This was no coincidence; my mum reached out to these women, whose children would often come to our house while they were out at work, and because no-one made a fuss or suggested there was anything wrong, it all seemed perfectly normal to us. It’s only with hindsight that I can see how unusual it was.]

Auntie Peggy was a lovely woman. Her softly spoken Yorkshire vowels carried a mischievous wit and limitless kindness. She had retired from work by the time I knew her, partly due to disability: she suffered from severe arthritis but never complained and was always active. She had a little blue “invalid carriage” that she drove everywhere and was much in demand as a babysitter, for us and for the Mitchell kids next door; I think she looked after us  every time my parents were out at Party meetings, and the occasional party. She would make us laugh, playing games with her walking stick. Eventually, sometime in the 1970s, she had a hip replacement (a new procedure then) and we were so amazed to see the miracle of our “crippled” Auntie Peggy able to run and even jump that we got her to run up and down the stairs over and over again just to prove it.

Peggy was known for her sense of humour and every birthday, without fail, she would find the perfect, jokey card for each of us. I still have a few in the archives:

Cards from Auntie PeggyWhen I was 6 years old my family went to Hungary on holiday for the second time. Our Hungarian friends had invited us out so that Brother 2 could spend the summer in a sanatorium at the top of Kekes mountain to treat his asthma.We had a wonderful holiday but I came home a week early with Dad, because I had a very important job to do: I was to be bridesmaid at the wedding of Peggy’s daughter Maggie. Maggie had been part of our family since she was a child herself, although I only knew her as a grown up, a super cool swinging 60s girl about town with a caramel coloured Mini and a deep resonant singing voice like Joan Baez. When she married Jim at the same Barnes church that my parents had been married in, I was thrilled to be part of the occasion, in my little turquoise dress, white satin shoes and gloves. Here I am, in Auntie Margaret’s photo album (the same one featured in my previous post):

Maggie's wedding photo

“The serious bridesmaid: Maggie’s wedding 1968”

Sadly the marriage didn’t last, but Maggie later found permanent happiness in her second marriage to Ken and a new life in Canada.

In 1980, aged 18, I left home, much to my parents’ distress, not to get married or attend university but to work in W.H. Smith, live in a squalid Brixton flat and go out to see as many bands and drink as much Guinness as I could manage. After 4 years of shop work I decided that university, free as it was in those happy days, wasn’t such a bad option and took myself off to Stirling for 4 magical years. In order to take up this opportunity, however, I had to come crawling back to my parents and ask them to take me back home. They did so with open arms – we had never fallen out and I still saw them most weekends – so in August 1984 I moved back into the family home. My homecoming coincided with Auntie Peggy coming to live with us, but for the saddest of reasons.

Peggy had been bravely fighting cancer for some time; a tumour had already taken one of her eyes and now the cancer had spread to her liver and become terminal. She was dying, and my Mum, who had already lost her best friend Margaret to cancer, would not let her die in a hospital. So Auntie Peggy moved into a divan bed in our sitting room, with its French windows opening onto the garden, for the final weeks of her life, tended by my mother and a Macmillan nurse. Our house filled up as Maggie and Ken came from Canada and Peggy’s brother Tom from Australia, to say their final goodbyes. Mine included: I can still remember those last chats I had with Auntie Peggy, how gentle and loving she was, as always. I confided in her my worries about moving back in with my parents and she simply said: “East west, home is best.” I kissed her forehead goodnight for the last time and 2 days later, having said goodbye to all of her loved ones,  she drifted away peacefully.

My diary of that time records those final days:

“Sunday 12th August: Got home just before dinner, so while the others were eating I kept Peggy company; found it much easier to talk to her. She can hardly speak but her mind is all there, still Peggy; she smiles and laughs despite her bedridden frailty. She is incredibly calm and has accepted her fate – I can’t…

Tuesday 14th August: It’s all over: Peggy’s gone. It should be a relief and a release but all I feel now is numb with shock and grief and drained of everything. The house is very sad. We all know we should be glad for her, happy that at last she’s free and at peace, but you can’t help grieving. Peggy was always there – life won’t be the same – it’s worst for Maggie, and for Mum. “

Maggie’s funeral flowers carried a card that said: “To Mum: my mentor and my best friend.” They were exceptionally close. It was a lovely thing that Mum did for her friend, and for Maggie as well, enabling an intimacy and peacefulness in Peggy’s final days that no hospital could have provided. Our house was home to many people over the 5 decades my parents lived in it, and though this was a sad time for everyone, it was also very special. I know how hurt my parents were that Maggie returned to Canada and never contacted them again. She had been like a daughter to them, but I guess after her mother’s death she couldn’t face her old life and just put it all behind her, us included. I suppose we’ll never know for sure, but it was a shame for my mum and dad; they missed her.

Peggy Miles was a remarkable woman, brave and funny and gentle and kind. A lovely Auntie to this child. I only wish that, like my Auntie Margaret,  we could have had the pleasure of her company for longer.

Auntie Peggy

Auntie Peggy

Posted in 1960s, 1970s, 1980s, Ornaments ("ordiments") | Tagged | Leave a comment

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

Mum and Margaret Press

Margaret and my Mum in their youth

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