Tuesday, 19 June 2007

Eccentric families - growing up in the 60s

Haven't done a blog before so am probably doing this in totally the wrong way - it was sharing a birthday with the Today programme that did it, and receiving instructions on how to "blog" via email during an unusually quiet hour at work. The Today programme are wanting memories from people who were born on their birthday. Here are a few of mine for what they're worth - my family was and is still fairly eccentric and highly entertaining - this is all pretty lighthearted and not really political so I hope it's still useful.

I was born in Berwick upon Tweed on 28th October 1957 and have lots of memories of my childhood, growing up in a very strict scottish "frugal" family with my two elder sisters and younger brother.

My father ran a successful grain and seed merchant company with his elder brother in Berwick and my mother had been a nurse at Edinburgh Royal Infirmary, but stopped working when she got married. She had been the youngest of six children and her father was a doctor in nearby Norham who died suddenly in his early 40s when she was 5. The family had been left penniless as her father hadn't ever chased up his patients' bills and so they had to move to Edinburgh where my fiercely snobbish grandmother was forced to take in lodgers to pay the bills. The sense that education and manners meant far more than money and success pervaded all of our childhood. Wastefulness was sinful and all things Scottish were good.

As a result we all grew up in hand me down clothes – as the third daughter, I naturally fared the worst but would also protest the loudest. It was usually ancient kilts that had passed down through the family (McCreath tartan of course). Cheery, cheeky Scottish singer Andy Stewart would usually be warrrbling away in the background at home: “Step we gaily on we go, heel for heel and toe ferr toe, Arm in Arm and RRRRoe and Rrrroe (I never quite knew what the rrroe and rrroe was – but my mother would make me eat cod roe, so I thought it was possibly something to do with that) – All for Marrrie’s wedding”. For same strange reason, my sister Tinny (short for Catriona) and I secretly fancied Andy Stewart and used to sing along to “Donald where’s yer trooosers” with great enthusiasm: “OOOO - let the winds blow high, let the winds blow low, through the stRRReet in my kilt ah go, all the lassies say Hello Donald, where’s yer Trrrroooosers!!!

There was often an evil smell in the house as my mother would be boiling up a sheep’s head for Jason, our beloved springer spaniel, father’s badly behaved “gun dog” and our surrogate extra brother to whom we would confide our darkest secrets when sent to our rooms in disgrace for not eating cold ratatouille. My mother was a little ahead of her time in the culinary stakes – much to our embarrassment as children. I remember begging her to have fish fingers and ice cream when I brought my friends home from school, but no, inevitably, she would serve up something even more gruesome like tongue and sweetbreads with prunes for pudding or tapioca. Looking back, I wonder if she did it on purpose?

Primary school was sometimes an ordeal. Wearing my sisters’ hand me down navy blue baggy knickers, ubiquitous kilt, scratchy cable knit, brown wooly socks held up with elastic garters at the knee and sensible brown lace up shoes I held my head high, but secretly prayed in bed at night for some pretty pink nylon flowery knickers, a pink skinny rib top, shiny black pointy shoes, and a pale grey pinafore dress. However despite my appearance, I managed to maintain my street cred by being the “two bally” and “jacks” champion and also the fastest girl to shin up a rope to the top of the dining hall – I could also stand on my head, run fast, pull very funny faces which made people laugh - and knew all about God – which endeared me to some, but not all, of the teachers.

The teachers were a very very terrifying bunch – as anyone who went to the Parade School in Berwick upon Tweed in the early 60s will testify – or was I just an awful wimp? Growler was the worse. He was the Headmaster and would parade around the dinner hall at lunchtime, demonically playing with a large leather strap. His huge face would be permanently an unhealthy dark red with fury, the jutting-out moles wobbling on his face. For spurious reasons, he would suddenly roar out and pounce on some poor unsuspecting child and drag him or her out to his office. The whole dining hall with its 200 pupils would immediately fall eerily silent as we all sympathized with the victim.

Miss Bell was another petrifying teacher with a strap who used to regularly beat children at the front of the classroom while we all had to watch. She would screech and scream: “I’ll go high jinks up a lamp post and come down on you like a ton of bricks!!” I suffered in Miss Bell’s class and at one point refused to go to school for days. If anyone got less than 6 out of 10 for mental arithmetic test on a Friday morning, they had to stand on their chair and be systematically humiliated by Miss Bell, who would encourage the rest of the class to join in. The poor child would also usually end up being smacked, or belted. I was totally useless at mental arithmetic, and was so scared the night before that I could never sleep – as a consequence was even denser the next day than ever and would always end up standing on my chair. When my mother’s sister, Auntie Nancy, aged 50, announced her engagement to slightly strange Chris, who was 20 years younger (disapproving pursed lips throughout the older members of the family), I begged her to have her wedding on a Friday, so that I could miss mental arithmetic. I almost wept with relief when we duly received the wedding invitation for a Friday.


Alan said...

Great to see you up and posting... can't wait to read more.

Alan, BBC

Kate said...

Not sure what I'm doing really - it's a bit trial and error technically - have been so busy I've forgotten about the blog for a while, but I'll get back to it soon - loads of material but I'm not sure how relevant it all is - have a great picture of us all at primary school at the christmas party - looking a bit like a scene from Angela's Ashes - at some point I will learn how to upload some pics

Pollyb1967 said...

hey thanks for starting your blog Kate. I love the stuff about school so a picture would be great to add to that. would love to read more on your family - especially the attitudes about your aunty marrying a younger man, and managing without much money, How did you know so much about God by the way?

Alan said...

If you've already scanned the picture, or have it on your computer, uploading photos is quite easy in Blogger. When you're entering text in the main box, there's an "image" icon above it. When you click on that, it asks you to browse to the photo on your computer, and then adds it to the post. There's an explanation here, or drop me a line.