Chapter Five

High Days and Holidays

Where do I begin to recall all the happy times that came with summer holidays and annual festivities? Money was always a bit tight, but Eve and Gordon made sure no one went without. I cannot remember Christmas before Cedar Avenue, but am certain maternal grandparents Elsie and Percy would have been centre stage. There was a pattern of love and tradition that embraced festivities that settled into joyous, comforting celebrations in the Sixties. Highlights included:

  1. Christmas stockings – oh, the joy of that empty sock becoming lumpy, bumpy and heavy at some point in the early hours. Was there any thrill greater than its weight on the eiderdown as you woke?
  2. The ‘big’ gift from Santa, usually a doll’s pram or new bike which felt huge as you pedalled and wobbled around the Avenue after a delicious Christmas lunch – throughout my life, whenever a bike has been hired that is a little too large, I am transported back to being seven or eight years old.
  3. Heaps of other gifts that always included annuals (Blue Peter, Bunty), clothes for ‘Tressy’ (her hair grows), a selection box and a tiny snow globe from our paternal grandparents Maud and Ernest.
  4. Preparing and rehearsing the evening entertainment for the adults – Debbie and Mandy, The Sunshine Girls (‘we are the sunshine girls, this is our sunshine show, we hope you enjoy the shooooow, and come back another, come back another, come back another daaaaaay’), this catchy intro (which we would occasionally sing together as adults, so strong were the memories) would be followed by various song and dance acts performed in matching homemade outfits – perhaps a natty red kilt with a cream hand knitted cardigan.
  5. The annual Kinloch Christmas Party, which always took place at the Beaconsfield venue that Mandy subsequently chose for her wedding reception. This always meant a fabulous gift, somehow Santa knew exactly what we wanted and it was always a BIG parcel, followed by masses of food and party games like musical chairs, not to mention the entertainer with his awesome balloon sculptures.
Gordon, Debbie, Mandy

Summer holidays were almost as joyous, particularly bed and breakfast taken on farms in Devon and Cornwall. The journey itself was quite an ordeal – motorways were few and far between and Gordon insisted on travelling overnight, for a journey that could take eight hours or longer. Mandy and I would stay up late, then the family set out in the small hours to ‘miss the traffic’. Seat belts were not fitted in rear seats in those days, nor were they compulsory for driver or front seat passenger, so there was plenty of space for pillows and blankets, with us girls curling up together in the back to sleep the miles away. One of Gordon’s annual ‘almost new’ cars had a fold down seat rest on the back seat (complete with a neatly concealed cigarette ash tray) and this helped the us have our own space, although quarrels still abounded.

“That arm rest falls slightly to the left, I am definitely sitting on the right!”

“No, it’s not fair, I want that side!”

After Gordon had driven past a previously agreed point labelled on the navigational scrap of paper sellotaped to the front dashboard, guarded by a small doll in national dress stuck in position with Plasticine, he would pull over into a layby for a nap. Mandy and I would doze in the back at a level of unconsciousness that still leaked the sound of cars racing past or lorries lumbering up hills, complete with muffled gear changes. Eve might decide to make a brew, setting up the small methylated spirit burner with its bright blue flame laboriously heating up a tiny kettle; at some point this plan was replaced with a large tartan vacuum flask.

“Are we nearly there yet?” was the repeated cry after dawn.

“First person to see the sea gets six pence!”

Eventually we would arrive at our destination, probably around mid-morning, having successfully avoided hold ups on the A303. Despite passing Stonehenge for many a year, I had long been an adult before finally seeing it in the light of day. St Michael’s Mount was a particular favourite of ours, leading to another of our ‘in jokes’ that was regularly shared, right up to the weeks before Mandy’s untimely passing.

“Little does she know, but I’m St Michael’s Mount.”

This joke of innocents had the potential to be totally misunderstood by any eavesdropper, but remained a source of hilarity for many decades.

My love of writing possibly begun on these holidays, selecting postcards to send to nanny and grandad or keeping a diary. One holiday in Cornwall involved illustrations being added above one or two sentences, I clearly remembering my pride when Gordon remarked favourably on my sketch of ‘when the chickens escaped’. That particular recount was kept for many a year, testament to the power of a parent’s positive observation and the resultant boost to self-esteem. Praise from Gordon was few and far between, making this all the more memorable.

Sussex Coast Country (Southdean)

Around about 1963 – 1970, the family would also holiday on the South coast, either at Butlins or the Sussex Coast Country Park.

My memories of Butlins very much match the cinefilm from that time – large canteen style eating areas, watching swimmers through underwater windows beneath the surface of the pool, Red Coats as entertainers (so grown up!), Glamorous Grandma competitions, basic chalet accommodation and ‘wakey wakey, rise and shine!’ tannoy announcements at some ungodly hour of the day. I still treasure the little enamel badges collected in ’63 and ’64. The Country Park was smaller but far more select, with family photos showing Mandy gazing with wide eyed adoration at Nicky, the handsome young entertainer, as we hurtled towards adolescence. Happy times.

Buttercup and Daisy won the fancy dress!

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My sister Mandy

A couple of months ago, on Mother’s Day, I asked my boys to join me for a walk in a place of favourite childhood memories – Great Kimble, near Aylesbury, briefly the home of my maternal grandparents Elsie and Percy in the late 1960s. As I walked with Tim, Joe, Tom and nephew David, I dug deep for anecdotes about the places Mandy and I explored, and the pranks we got up to (picking cowslips from the railway track being one of them). Having lost Mandy early in 2012, remembering such happy, innocent times is always bittersweet. At one point David and I strolled alone and I shared an unrepeatable story about when Mandy and I were in Boots the Chemist, High Wycombe, and my eight or nine year old younger sister called me a name that stuck throughout our lives…

David asked me what secondary school Mandy went to (Holmer Green), and also asked if I could write down anything I could remember about his mum. I laughed and said ‘is that in addition to the ‘Childhood Memories’ blog I’m already writing?’ But his question nagged. This morning, without rhyme or reason, it came back to me and I thought ‘where do I begin?’ A voice in my head (Mandy?) said look in the memory box your sister left you.

There it is. Awarded third prize in her final year at The Park County Primary School, Hazlemere, my starting point. If I wait to polish and enhance this, it might never happen, so look on this as the first draft written in her very own words (minus commas) – pictures and embellishments may be added later.

My Earliest Memories by Mandy Hurford, 29.9.72

I can remember a little bit about my christening but only when I was taken into the church and crying. Also I remember when I fell down the stairs. I had dropped my doll on one of the stairs and I reached out for it when I fell head over heels all the way down and hit my head on the wall.

Then I was taken in the living room and sitting on my grandad’s lap I had a cold flannel put on my head.

I can remember when I went to the model village in Beaconsfield. There is a photo of me there on one of the pieces of paper. I was standing by the post office. Also once my sister and I had done something wrong. Well we were on one side of the table and our mum on the other with the wooden spoon she had been making cakes with. She hit the table with the spoon so hard that the spoon broke in half. We all started to laugh even mum. So we were saved from a telling off.

I remember on my 4th birthday the night before my mum was making my birthday cake. Of course she would not let me in the kitchen so I thought I could open the hatch and have a look at the cake but no she had tied the handles together so that only she could open the hatch. Well on my birthday when I saw the cake is was so nice I was glad I had not seen it the night before.

What my parents remember about me

My mum says that I used to get up to a lot of mischief when I was younger. Also mum and dad used to get a bit fed up with me for chewing the sides of my pram. My mother says that she always had to get me dressed last because I would get all dirty and untidy before they had time to get ready.

When I had done something wrong my mum would send me up to my bedroom but not for long because I would just come down again. My sister did not do the same she would sit up there all day if she had to. Mum and dad say I used to sleep walk a lot. I would go down into the living room sit down and watch the telly. Once I had had a dream that I had put a long leaved plant by my bed well when I woke up there was long leaved plant looking down at me. Was it a dream? My parents say I used to do good things, bad things, funny things and not so funny things. Oh well we all have done some strange things some time or another.

Photo taken of Mandy from the front garden of 24 Cedar Avenue

When I started school

I remember my mum and I looking round the Park school to see if I liked it. Well I did mainly because there were so many toys and things to do. While my mum was talking to my new teacher I had found a green broom just my size at that. So I started to sweep the floor much to their amazement. When it was time to go I was very upset to have to leave the broom there.

When it was time to go to school I didn’t want to go because I didn’t want to go mainly because I wanted to stay with my mum. I cried all the way there but when I got there I stopped. It was great fun with all of the things to play with. We all had to wear name labels so we wouldn’t get lost. We then went into the hall for prayers. When we had to come out we all played and mucked about with all of the things. It was all very strange to me but I got used to it after a while. The milk we had wasn’t very nice that day but I still drank it. Sometimes the milk was very nice and cool, but other times well you know. This is all I really remember about my first day at school.

Mandy always had neat handwriting

The most frightening thing that every happened to me

The most frightening thing that has happened to me was when I went to sleep with my friend Portia. Portia’s parents were out for the night so we sleeped in their bed because some friends of her parents had brought their children round for the night.

We had to put the little girl to bed and now Nigel the boy, Portia and I were going to bed. Portia’s brother was still down stairs he didn’t come to bed because he is older than us and had taken the dog for a walk. Well at about midnight Mark Portia’s brother came to bed. Now it was all quiet but then just like Portia she had to use the bathroom. When she had come back about ten minutes later Portia and I heard the back gate bang. We were a bit frightened but not as much as when Portia heard the back door open and then shut. I didn’t take much notice of her. But then we heard some stairs make a noise. By now we were really frightened when we heard someone or something going into the bathroom. We heard all these noises again then it went quiet and we fell asleep feeling most frightened. In the morning Portia’s aunty over the road told us she was the one who had come into the house last night but only because someone had left the bathroom light on. Well we all know who that was. She had only come to turn the light out after all.

Dad Gordon, Debbie, Mandy

The most exciting thing that has ever happened to me

The most exciting thing that has ever happened to me was when I went on holiday to Ibiza. In the aeroplane it was ever so exciting taking off from Luton and seeting the lights get smaller and smaller and then not seeing any over the canal. Then nearer to Ibiza we could see the islands around with all their tiny lights on. It was a rotten landing.

When we got to the hotel it was so big and all very exciting. Our bedroom that’s my sister and I was very nice. We were on the 3 floor at number 3042. The island was very nice and out on the balcony it was so warm. Like when we got off at the airport the heat hit us. In the morning from our balcony we could see the swimming pool and the sea. The sea was blue but not as blue as the swimming pool. We had breakfast of rolls, tea or coffee. Our friends(Jan and Neil White) that had come with us have got two children one two years old and the other one year old. The baby had baby food which we had brought with us. That holiday was the best we had ever had.

Ibiza, 1972

People I’ve met

I have met Sam Kid and got his autograph. I do not remember much about him because I was only small. But he was very nice and I like him a lot. Also when we went to Ibiza in the hotel there was a certain bell boy that my sister and I like a lot. We nicknamed him Berty the button boy. He was Spanish and was nice. He offered to take us down in the lift but we went down by the stairs because the lifts often got stuck! We didn’t talk much because of the language barrier and we didn’t know him very well. He was always the first one to talk and then we only talked once. But we still liked him.

Myself in 15 years time

In 15 years time I hope I will be married because I will be 26. I would like to have two children a boy and a girl. The boy called David and a girl called Dawn. I want to be a short hand typist. I would like to live in Hazlemere in a house near my parents. I want to learn how to drive so I could go out and not have to bother with bus fares. It would be much easier for the children too. I would like to have a Herald but for all I know we might be going around in arm chairs. I will have some pets of my own because I love animals. If I have enough money I would like to buy my children a pony. But only if I knew they would look after it and only if they really wanted one.

When I am about 14 I would like to take a part time job somewhere I don’t know where yet. I may not be a short hand typist when I am older because I would like to find out more about the job. I would like to have children very much and to visit my sister once in a while. Well about once a week and my parents too. If I don’t get married I shall stay with my parents if they said I could. I would give them some money for keeping me. And to help with the food.

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Chapter Four – School Days

Most of the time we avoided climbing chests of drawers and took a less risky approach to play. Board games such as ‘Coppit’ (which we only ever played at Aunty Enid’s flat on Green Hill before enjoying sleepover suppers of scrambled eggs and cheese on toast) and ‘Monopoly’ had occasional appeal, whilst Enid Blyton’s books could always draw me into the adventurous worlds of the Secret Seven or Famous Five. Mandy rarely picked up a book, but we both happily played for hours with baby dolls, dressing and undressing them, pushing them around the estate in their prams and acting like mini mums – these were pre-feminist days when my ‘daughter’ Sharon grew up with me, only being cast aside when my birthdays reached double figures and I accidentally poked her eye in.

Mandy, plus the view from number 24.

Most little girls in the Sixties (and beyond) collected the fashionable Sindy, but Mandy and I loved our Tressy dolls (‘her hair grows’ warbled the TV ad). Ever curious, I investigated how this worked by removing the head of my Tressy, this deed bringing a lifetime of regret – the winding device refused to work when I tried to screw her head back on and a wooden stick was stuffed up her neck as a repair job. There was absolutely no chance of a replacement doll, given that it was my all my own fault! Mum would knit little cardigans for our dolls and make them cotton dresses to match our own; I even remember mini quilted jackets that were a craft masterpiece. Yet what I really, really, wanted was the expensive pre-packaged outfits of psychedelic mini-skirts and tiny plastic high heeled shoes.

What I really wanted …

I started school in that freezing January, walking down Cedar Avenue and uphill all the way to Holmer Green Infant School (a good 45 minute walk), which was relatively newly opened. I have a very clear memory of my first day: looking out of a window above a low wash basin, I watched as mum turned the pushchair round, bowed her head against the wind, didn’t look back and trudged off through the snow, Mandy well wrapped up in a smart red snow suit, knitted bonnet and mitts plus a heap of blankets. How I cried! Very quickly I was distracted by the excitement of toilet cubicles built for small children and discovering that all the time spent with grandad learning to read had paid dividends – I was the only child in the class to start on Janet and John Book 4, versus Books 1 or 2 that everyone else was given. Thinking about it now, I was an easily pleased, rather smug small child! Whilst I don’t remember the names of any children in my class, I do recall playing ‘Jacks’ on the playground, all squatting on haunches trying to pick up as many metal jacks as possible during the bounce of the small ball – which you had to also catch to secure the score. Hopscotch was also popular; a skill that I went on to explain to many children in later life when I took up a career as a primary school teacher.

Some other memories stick with me from Holmer Green – a lifelong hatred of beetroot conceived over many a school dinner, when it was chopped into tiny cubes as part of a salad that had to be eaten right down to a clean plate. Dinner Ladies would make you sit until you finished, even if that meant missing afternoon lessons – this happened to me many times. I remember pond dipping, using nets to collect mini boatmen and other creatures placed carefully into jam jars, and singing ‘Good King Wenceslas’ at the top of our voices – those long drawn out ‘cruuu-el’ and ‘fuuu-el’ being the best part. There was also the day I was given the Supreme Honour of going to the headteacher’s office to collect the tray of coins from the safe for that day’s lesson about money. How heavy it was! How neatly the coins were stacked! How carefully each coin was counted back in!

Whilst I was busy enjoying my infant days, a brand-new primary school was being built on our Park Estate – Park County Primary School – just in time for when Mandy was due to start. I changed schools to be with her. Three years is a large age gap when one of you is in Reception and the other has just become a ‘junior’, so I have few memories of our time together under the leadership of Mr Cox, the headteacher who settled for many years. My final year, in particular, is quite well documented within a ‘daily magazine’ used for free writing – still in existence.

Apart from the annual Halloween party where we dressed as witches and wizards before dancing in an increasingly crazy whirl to ‘Hall of the Mountain King’, and the pocket Bible handed to us at our respective leaving ceremonies, one event stood out in our respective school days. Crowning the Queen of May. I proudly announced my status after the Year 6 class vote,

“I’m one of the Queen’s assistants. Louise Marshall got 13 votes; Francis and I got four each so we are joint assistants.”

Three years later Mandy had the last word.

“I’m the May Queen this year!”

Always popular, Mandy had secured far and away the highest number of votes; I imagine if she were here today, her precise score would come instantly to mind.

Big events when you are ten years old stay with you for the rest of your life.

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Chapter Three – Cedar Avenue

The winter of 1963 is legendary, the coldest for more than 200 years. It started snowing just before Christmas 1962, with blizzards sweeping across the country, stranding villages and bringing down power lines. The below or near freezing temperatures meant that much of England and Wales was covered in deep snow (in some areas drifts reached 6.1 metres) until early March, when the thaw finally set in. This so called ‘Big Freeze’ was when our young family moved from their flat in Seer Green to a newly built three bedroom semi-detached house on the Park Estate, Hazlemere, Bucks, three miles outside High Wycombe.  

Our new home

24 Cedar Avenue – the last property available on the builders’ site map – stood metres away from the huge, spreading Cedar tree that gave the road its name and marked the entrance to woodlands where, as we grew, we would play unsupervised for hours. The house cost Gordon the princely sum of £4000. On the day they arrived, Gordon sat with his head in his hands and said to Eve,

“What have we done? We’ve only got fifty quid in the bank and that old banger on the driveway”.

Always cautious with his money, Gordon had been persuaded by his boss at Kinloch’s to buy, rather than apply for a bigger council property. It was good advice – a sound investment, as well as a home.

Debbie’s favourite toddler toy, ginger cat Fluffy would always be close behind

Although I was only just coming up to five years old, I clearly remember ice on the inside of the window panes, Jack Frost painting delicate patterns on the glass and heaps of builders’ paint pots stacked up in the middle of the sitting room. Someone had forgotten to tell the workmen we were moving in! These were the days before central heating and a coal fire in the sitting room, supplemented by a boiler in the small kitchen, were all we had to take away the chill. Every night we would be tucked under eiderdowns, blankets and sheets, neatly made with ‘hospital corners’ to trap us in. Was there anything better than crawling into your cosy cave, literally roasting small feet on the piping spot where the hot water bottle lay? At one point we progressed to an electronic blanket. This was a great idea until the night someone forgot to switch it off. It was a short lived experiment.

I have many fond memories of that house, with its neatly edged front lawn that was Gordon’s pride and joy, edged by rose bushes; Mandy and I loved making rose perfume, submerging petals in jam jars, squashing them down and convincing ourselves the scent was sublime. Once we sat on the low brick wall and tried to sell this bottled aroma to anyone passing by, failing miserably. Above the front door was a flat porch roof, jutting out almost as an after-thought. Our oldest friend, Lynne, recently remembered the ‘special cushion’ we had for sitting on top of the porch in comfort. I have zero recollection of this risky behaviour, but trust Lynne’s memory implicitly – we must have climbed out of my bedroom window and settled down to survey the goings on in the street.

The back garden was well enclosed, quite long with a concrete coal bunker alongside the garage on the left and an L shaped turn at the foot where we could get up to all sorts of mischief out of sight. It was here that we trapped worms in empty Ovaltine tins, kindly providing a handful of soil to crawl through and a leaf for supper, before using a skewer to pierce holes in the lid. Somehow our captives always managed to escape, a mystery that puzzles me to this day as the lid would still be firmly in place. We would also make mud pies, weighing and measuring with care before dipping in our tea spoons for a taste – I can still recall that earthy, gritty flavour! In this hidden space there was a wire fence between our plot and the vegetable patch of Sally Ann’s back garden. With no problem at all we dug a hole beneath the fence, hoisted up the wire and created a rat run between our houses. Both sets of parents must have approved, or chosen to turn a blind eye, because there were many clandestine meetings between the rows of runner beans in Sally Ann’s plot, stuffing our cheeks with the underlying strawberries before sneaking into their house to make prank telephone calls.

Mandy was three years younger than me, but always determined to keep up (and overtake where possible). Meticulous with her possessions, my little sister would dust and display her collection of ornaments on a little threepenny shaped table (having somehow negotiated the larger second bedroom) and would be indignant if one was moved even an inch. Conversely, my tiny box room over that look out porch of 24 Cedar Avenue was crammed with books, scattered across the carpet with some piled up on the small yellow and white bedside chest of drawers with its secret places – old cigarette packets glued to the inside back wall, tucked behind the end of the drawers. Inspired by my love of Enid Blyton’s Secret Seven and Famous Five, the treasures tucked into these spaces included home-made membership cards and badges allocated to a limited number of close friends, depending on who was in favour at the time. Siblings were rarely included in these clubs. Mandy’s room included a gigantic oak Victorian chest of drawers with spherical knobs that were almost too broad for little fingers, having to be tugged with considerable energy to get to our clothes stored within.

Mandy and Debbie, c1965, Butlins

This was the room where we liked to play (although Mandy insisted on everything being tidied away meticulously at the end of each session). With her short blond bob cropped around cute apple cheeks and bright blue eyes, Mandy’s ‘orders’ were difficult to resist, though I would do my best to do so when it came to clearing up instructions. Wearing matching home-made cotton dresses and knitted cardigans, one wet Saturday afternoon found us both busy in the larger bedroom.

“I’m going to play my new single,” I announced, carefully placing ‘White Horses’ onto the turntable of my portable record player, a recent gift from Father Christmas. Mandy was busy tidying the dolls’ house built by Uncle Bill, carefully pulling the sharp nail fixed as a front door handle and opening up the two front walls before getting to work, busily swapping the kitchen with the sitting room. “Again?” Mandy complained, “You’ve played nothing else since we went with Nanny and Grandad to that underground market in Allesby.”

“Aylesbury,” I corrected with a superior tone, “Well, I love it so you’ll just have to put up.”

Mandy adjusted the position of the tiny dresser before carefully balancing miniature plates and dishes on its shelves. ‘On white horses let me ride away, to a place of dreams so far away, let me run, to the sun …’ warbled the vinyl at 45rpm, before getting stuck on ‘to the sun, to the sun, to the sun …’ I lifted the needle, blew off some dust and removed the record, inspecting it for scratches before carefully placing it back in its paper sleeve. Time for Freddie and the Dreamers.

“I’m bored,” Mandy announced, tucking in her vest and pulling up both knee length white socks for the third time in half an hour. This was something done so vigorously and regularly that Mandy’s socks were the only ones in our household that developed holes in the ribbing at the top as opposed to holes in the toe or heel. Totally impossible to darn.

When asked later, neither of us could remember whose idea it was – or if we did, out of typical loyalty neither was going to say. Taking it in turns to climb the oak chest of drawers using the polished knobs like a 21st century climbing wall seemed like a good plan. Who could climb the quickest? Mandy went first, at the age of four still the smaller, although likely to overtake me within the next three years (for a stretch of about 18 months we were repeatedly mistaken as twins, although Mandy always had the better hairstyle, neatly and professionally cut; my short style had a fringe that was sellotaped to my forehead whilst our mum Eve attempted to cut a straight line across the bits sticking out from underneath).

“My turn,” I insisted, as Mandy sat on the bed glowing with triumph having made it to the top of the chest and then back down again in what she considered to be record time. “Bet I’ll be faster!”

Sprinting across the room and scrambling up the first set of drawer knobs, I was almost at the top when the chest began to tip, rocking back and forth slightly before the inevitable.

“Aaaagh,” I screamed, turning and leaping onto the bed next to Mandy who had shrunk back against the far wall with a look of sheer terror.

There was an almighty crash as the colossal furniture fell onto its face, causing the walls to shake and the single pane window to rattle. “What on earth is going on?” mum bellowed, racing up the stairs seeking the source of the unexpected earthquake. Two sheepish little girls stared wide eyed at the damage.

“It wasn’t me,” we chorused.

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Those of you who know me may remember that my husband and I (how regal is that?) were involved in an August 2017 road traffic accident that almost cost Tim his leg. We were holidaying in Greece at the time and the trauma remains in my top three of horrendous events, places one and two going to close family bereavement.

I have never been able to write about what happened.

Today I took part in an Arvon poetry masterclass and one of the 15 minute free writing tasks set me off – ‘write about being in a place where you were unwanted’. Instantly I was back there.

Outside Rhodes men in uniforms loll behind spiky gates

That creak as she pushes hard

Small, grazed, broken toothed woman

Trying to fly him home from hospital bed

If only AXA pay out.

Needing another tick that comes from these

Smoking figures of authority,

irritated their discussion is disrupted

By someone anxious, not least

as their need to speak English

is essential.

Polite plea falls pathetically onto apathy

As they flick through the large tome of

road traffic accidents.

It is here, we will interview him.

Which they do, wakening by shining a torch in his eyes.

One hour before the accident

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The Century Before The Millennium

Front cover illustration by Nick Ryde

One of my plans for this autumn is to write more, including additional chapters for ‘A Sixties Childhood.’ To get myself going (always the biggest stumbling block), I thought I would go back to the last century and share what, she says modestly, can only be described as a masterpiece.

As a young mother (many moons ago), I struggled for memorable gift inspiration as the new Millennium approached. Setting aside the whole world’s worries that the internet would implode at midnight and all data would vanish into the ether, I had an idea. Why not create a family book drawing on memories of the century before? Who was still alive that could help? Who did I know that could create an amazing front cover illustration?

When I look back at the end result, I must admit feeling rather proud of myself. At the time of its creation (remembering that it was many months in the making), Joe was nine and Tom a lively three year old, whilst I worked almost full time as production manager of a small design agency and studied for a psychology degree with the Open University. Recognising my time limitations, I invited older family members to send me their contributions, whilst visiting and interviewing the oldest one of all (Auntie Elsie, well into her nineties). Then I typed it all up and created the artwork, including finding, scanning and adding photographs, working out how to do a PDF version at a time when this file type was still in its infancy.

Of course, working at Right Angle Design meant I could pick the brains of experts, but it was still a steep learning curve. You will notice that somewhere along the way I ‘lost’ the Rainer family tree, though there is still a printed copy buried in a drawer which I will seek, scan, save and share at some point. Those relatives kind enough to contribute received one of the few printed copies; sadly many of them have now left us but their words live on.

Do click the link and enjoy – whether a family member or not, it’s an easy to read record of social history. If you are a Rainer, Hurford, Evans, Bingham, Lickley or Harris, share with younger members of the family and download a copy for your own archive. It is a story that deserves to be told well into the future.

Posted in 2000, Anthology, Autobiography, childhood, history, Loss, love, Memoir, Nineties, Parenting, Sixties | Leave a comment

Why do I volunteer in a bookshop? An interview …

Another purchase!

When did you start volunteering at Oxfam Books & Music, Beaconsfield? 

I signed up in September 2019 and chose to have a regular slot on a Friday morning, although I’ve also been encouraged to pop in for a couple of hours here or there. I love the flexibility of being able to do what I can when I can!

Why did you volunteer? 

Oxfam Books and Music has been on my radar for a long time – whenever I popped in as a customer I would say to myself ‘I’d love to work here one day’. There’s a fabulous atmosphere, great range of stock and working in a bookshop has always been on my bucket list! I’ve been lucky enough to have two careers – the first was as a print buyer in advertising and graphic design; the second in Primary education, this took me to headship. I loved this role but was more than ready to adjust my work life balance. Now I have the best of both worlds as I still teach part time but also get to give something back by volunteering for Oxfam. 

What do you like about working at Oxfam?

First of all, there is a great sense of teamwork and a real mix of people: some weeks follow a pattern with colleagues, familiar faces quickly become friends; other weeks you get to work with someone new. Or if you choose, you can work quietly by yourself in one of the myriad backrooms. Everyone is there because they choose to be there, not because they have to be there. No two stints are the same and I’ve learnt so much. Often the book that you think is worth a fortune isn’t, as you find out whilst researching for the online team; whilst certain collection ‘niches’ are very much in demand. Ever since I was a small child I’ve found it impossible to walk past a bookshop and I’ve always loved seeking out bargains. Penn Bookshop (now sadly closed) was a favourite haunt for many a year and their stock regularly added to my collection of Observer pocket books; now I have a new source! 

The store manager has a knack for spotting volunteer’s areas of interest and I particularly enjoy advising customers about children’s books, curating the art collection, creating window displays, and employing my lifelong love of learning to sort books in all subject areas. My addiction to social media and photography has also been spotted and my Twitter feed will often ‘cross fertilise’ with @OxfamBeacoBooks. This is an area which I sense we will develop further…

We are very fortunate in the quality of donations and there is always a thrill when sorting through new bags and boxes. Whether it’s a high-quality contemporary book or a much-loved vintage one, there are always tempting book covers and interesting contents. To be honest, the biggest risk is that volunteering will cost you money – it’s a rare week when I leave without buying something!

Favourite book? 

This is almost impossible to answer, over the years I’ve narrowed it down to my favourite three books per decade! These are always ones that have made an impression for some reason or other. I will go for one of the oldest on my bookshelf: Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte.

Favourite LP? 

Ones that I will always pick off the rack and flip over include David Bowie, Simon and Garfunkel, Roxy Music – pretty much anything from the 70s ad 80s.

Best Oxfam bargain? 

Where can I possibly begin? Everything’s a bargain, not least because the collection has been lovingly curated in the first place. I tend to swing from something I know a family member will love – Dusty Springfield vinyl for my husband, travelogues for my sons – to paperbacks on my ‘Must Read’ list such as ‘The Heart’s Invisible Furies’ by John Boyne, ‘Autumn’ by Ali Smith and anything by Maggie O’Farrell. Ultimately, the best bargain is yet to be found: that elusive copy of the Observer’s Book of Birds of Australia …

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The old year ends

Those of us who work in education know that the year doesn’t really end on 31st December. It ends at that moment when we wipe a tear from the corner of our eye (sometimes) as the current cohort skip out of the door at the end of the summer term. IT ENDS NOW! Or in my case, a couple of weeks ago as I finished early, enabling my first term time holiday in more than 25 years. Anyway, whenever a year ends – whether December or July – we look back.


Review what we meant to do.

Rejoice at our successes.

Regret what we failed to achieve.

So, at this point I opt out of writing anything and do a cheat blog. I’m sending you right back to Alphabet Soup …

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My Hands

I write with a gel pen, 

commandeered from my husband.

I hold it tight in the hope of inspiration,

Creating this task.

I remember children’s fingers

Linked with mine.

Not just my own

But those belonging to others.

And sometimes

If the mood is right

I cover them with gloves

To dig in the garden,

Or carefully hold soil and seed.

But I’m proudest of my ring finger

And the family that stems from that day

When the gold band slid on.

Representing years of motherhood

Nurturing my pride and joy.

You, my hands, aren’t as young as you were

But in your grasp lie a lifetime

Past, present and future


Too fast to handle.

(15 minute task, creative writing for wellbeing course 21.2.2021)

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My Year In Books

It’s the first of January. Inevitably my thoughts turn to New Year resolutions, which you will be relieved to know I am saving for another day. Other than a sneak preview – one of them relates to books. This hints at choosing goals I know I can reach. YES! After the events of 2020, why torment yourself with aiming for the unachievable?

Talking of the dreaded year that has just come to a loudly trumpeted end, it seems wise to look backwards before heading forth. I don’t want to add to the doom and gloom so have decided to focus on the brilliant books I’ve enjoyed this year – probably the most I’ve read in any 12 months other than between the ages of 7 and 11 when I literally devoured Enid Blyton every week, alongside other stand out authors such as Mary Norton and Frances Hodgson Burnett. Volunteering for Oxfam Books and Music, Beaconsfield, has become quite expensive – it’s a rare week that I fail to purchase more books and David the manager has sussed out how to taunt and tempt, lovingly stroking Ladybird classics or 1960s Borrowers box sets right under my nose.

Anyway, alongside reading books, sorting books, rearranging books, resisting books and stacking books, I used the three-month initial lockdown to display my collection by colour (I know, I know), as well as being inspired by authors towards writing my own short stories. Although this was fun, I quickly realised that there are hundreds, if not thousands, of highly talented writers out there and the hopes of being good enough to publish are virtually zero. Publish in return for money, that is. On the plus side, technology provides a range of platforms for getting your thoughts out there in the public domain. Which is why you’re suffering this.

Sorry, I digress. One thing I do regret about 2020 is my abject failure to keep a record of my reading, other than the occasional creative picture on Instagram of books that have particularly stood out. Moving forward, I need a more cohesive plan for recording my reading, and the way fellow blogger Nicky puts a photo up on Facebook each time a book is finished is one idea I might steal; alternatively, I could simply keep a good old-fashioned list.

If I had to do a Top Five, they would be:

Macavity the Mystery Cat, TS Eliot – absolutely adored creating a scheme of work around this and teaching it to Year 3. They lapped it up and all of them learnt to recite the poem, whilst being very creative with how they performed criminal actions. Months later they could still rattle off the words without prompting, a skill which will hopefully stay with them always. It was a privilege to ignite their love of rhyme.

The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox, Maggie O’Farrell – a thought provoking tale of a patient locked up in an asylum for over sixty years. Was Esme ever insane? The author’s style of writing really appeals, possibly enhanced by seeing her interviewed by the Arvon Foundation for one of those ubiquitious live stream events that popped up all over the place. My 2021 reading list will definitely include more of her books.

Becoming, Michelle Obama – I don’t usually go for autobiographies, but listening to this as an audio book kept me gripped for weeks during my various commutes. I clearly remember sitting outside a school in the Chalfonts, munching a prawn sandwich before leading a Gruffalo workshop, almost overshooting my start time as hearing the tales of a climb to presidency narrated by the author herself was so compelling.

The Heart’s Invisible Furies, John Boyne – adored this, the protagonist Cyril will be with me always! This was the first time I’d read this author – prompted by hearing him speak online at the Cheltenham Literary Festival – and it won’t be the last. I particularly related to the influence of the Catholic Church in Ireland and the impact on lives of those who don’t ‘fit’. Absolutely brilliant.

The Giver of Stars, Jojo Moyes – again, an Audible listen (something else I’ve signed up for the first time this year, a brilliant way of expanding your ‘reading’). I knew this would be outstanding as Jojo never fails, one of my favourite authors. With the setting being a packhorse library, it was always going to tick every box!

As I conclude, I realise just how difficult it was to come up with a Top Five – there are several others I could have included. This year I have enjoyed every book at some level or other. Reflecting on this, I think it’s because I have been able to set aside time to really focus on books, rather than dropping off half way through a chapter at bedtime and muddling through. This strategy is certainly a lesson for the New Year!

Posted in 2020, Autobiography, Books and Reading, Catholic, childhood, education, School, Sixties | Tagged , , , | 1 Comment