A plague on all your Houses

Do you ever suddenly realise – now – something that ought to have been perfectly obvious at the time but wasn’t – because you were a child?

The other night I was lying in the bath, re-reading passages from Stephen King’s On Writing and simultaneously trying to fend off the three-legged cat, who was trying to eat the hairband I had scrunched my hair up in, and about to fall into the hot water. He has no sense, which may be why he ended up at the age of 2 or thereabouts with a leg missing…

And as I was lying in the bath etc., etc I suddenly thought:

When I was at Junior School we had things called House Points.

I can remember my father, who thought he was funny but actually tended to – not be, making a huge fuss about House Points. He thought they were hilarious. Take two house points, he used to say, though mostly to my younger sisters. I never seemed to deserve even one house point.

I recalled, suddenly, a big whiteboard thing on the left-hand wall of my classroom, and how it had been divided into colours – red, green, yellow and blue. When you did something clever, like get 10 out of 10 for maths, or were nauseatingly, toady-ingly obedient to the teacher’s demands, you got given a stick-on star, either in ‘your’ colour or in silver or, rarely, in gold. And you marched proudly up to the whiteboard in front of the whole class and stuck your star on.

And when you did sports, you collected a canvas band in ‘your’ colour and were forced to run about and jump over things on behalf of it. Though strappingly built and tall for my age, I had absolutely no stamina and would become crippled with the Stitch after running a couple of yards, but all teachers persisted in the delusion that strapping and tall must equal athletic. So I rarely won stars for my team. And I was really bad at maths, which was the best thing for getting stars in, so I never got any stars for that…

My allotted colour was blue, and blue was Wolf. Yellow was Sydney, Red was Chatham and Green was Darwin, and these were all Famous People, though we were never told why. Later I would discover that Darwin was the chap with the long straggly beard who invented Natural Selection and horrified Victorians by suggesting we had descended gradually from apes rather than being invented all on one day by God. Wolf, I think, may have been some sort of General who did something or other military in Canada. Chatham I suspect may have been a politician or Prime Minister, possibly Pitt the Younger. Sydney – no idea.

And then I thought:

Why were they called House Points?

And then I thought:

Oh, of course, our allotted colours and names (Blue/Wolf) were our houses, so the different coloured stars we got were house points. Duh! So it was a bit like Harry Potter and Gryffindor, Hufflepuff, Ravenclaw and Slytherin, except much, much duller.

It’s funny how memory works. From my first day at Infant School to my last day at Junior I knew both the Christian name and Surname of my fellow Infants, or Juniors, by heart. I can hear them now – Peter-Wheeler, Andrew-Begley, Lynda-Smith – and this is because every morning we had the calling of the Register, the names being read out in alphabetical order so that you could shout Present, or Here Miss, or whatever, and Miss could make a tick next to your name, with her fountain pen.

Now, I tend to recall the Christian names of a few close friends most of the time, although even those tend to escape me at odd moments, infuriatingly, usually when tired or distracted. You have this annoying situation where you can see someone’s face, know exactly where you first met them and whether you liked them or not, maybe recall huge swathes of their family history, but their name won’t swim to the surface.

Or you get this weird thing where information crops up, but not the information you want or need. So, I see a woman on the other side of the room, I know I worked with her once and where, I know what I thought of her and exactly what job she did – but not her name. I do, however, know that she had a daughter called Bethany, because she talked about her all the time but would pronounce it Beffany – my Beffany – and that this Beffany was some kind of wondrous prodigy…

The thing is, I don’t need to know this, any more than I needed to know why house points were called house points, or who Chatham was, or Sydney. And as for Beffany, I never met Beffany, thank goodness, and never will. Why does my brain waste so much energy on all this redundant stuff? Why can’t it conserve it’s limited energy and focus on useful stuff?

To tattoo or not to tattoo, that is the question

Yesterday I was trawling through some ancient Daily Post prompts* having rejected that day’s, which was about fashion-nostalgia – something else I don’t possess – and came across this one about tattoos. Specifically: If you were forced to get a (or another) tattoo, what would you get and where?

Hmmm…

dragon 2

Unlike most of the (televised) human race, it seems, I am totally untattooed. I have been amazed, recently, by the inkiness of everyone’s flesh. Even on Strictly Come Dancing – that treasure-chest of all that is glamorous and pristine – male dancers now seem to have tattoos hanging out under the sleeves of their powder-blue spangly tops – I mean, what is the world coming to?

I suppose it’s part of getting older. Things strike you as odd and gratuitously new-fangled that younger people don’t even notice. I recall a story about a woman going with her mother to stay in a hotel, and her mother being kind of affronted that hotel room-keys were now pieces of plastic to be swiped rather than actual metal keys. The older woman was not so much upset by this new piece of technology as dreadfully wearied. It made her feel that she had lived too long.

I begin to can relate to that now. You do get to a point where you just don’t want to have to a) absorb and b) try to suss out the logic behind a new fashion or development. Sometimes there just seems no reason why things have changed. There seem no possible benefit, no sense of progress – just change for the sake of change. The old adage If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it has now been discarded in favour of If it’s getting boring, change it.

In my younger day, tattoos were only seen on tarts and sailors – or sailors’ tarts. They were only to be obtained in the back alleyways of certain ports. Mostly they were of mighty anchors with elaborate twists of rope, or luscious ladies wearing very little.

Re tarts – I have to say there were rather a lot of things that would get you called a tart in my younger day. Ankle bracelets, I remember. Bottle-blonde hair. Hankies stuffed in your bra to make you look more luscious-er. Too much back-combing. Skirts too short. When I was at school they measured your skirt: you had to kneel on the floor and a teacher would check to see that no knee was visible beneath your skirt-hem. Nail-varnish – even clear, or that weird clear-pink stuff: straight to the science lab where a sadistic lab technician would remove the evil decoration with industrial strength acetone from a stoppered glass bottle. Any little cut or hangnail – you’d find out about it. Stockings too sheer. Stockings were meant to be thick and orange/sludge coloured so that (gasp!) men a) couldn’t see your actual flesh through them and b) wouldn’t even be tempted to look. Even patent leather shoes. I have a feeling that was Germaine Greer in The Female Eunuch saying that the nuns at her convent school banned patent leather “Else men should see your underwear reflected in it”. Really?

The worst two things you could do (instant tarthood) was get pregnant without being married or get divorced. If you got pregnant, people hardly spoke of you except in whispers. They certainly wouldn’t talk to you. Or your parents. Or your auntie. Or your second cousin twice removed. And divorced – divorces were so rare they hit the headlines. Divorces were scandalous. A divorcee had failed. She knew she had failed. She had failed to hang on to her husband. She must have done something to make him beat her up or go with other women. A divorcee was no better than she ought to be. Women saw her as a threat. Men homed in on easy pickings.

And then there was the thing about hats. You daren’t go out in a red hat because it was well-known: Red Hat, No Drawers! Not that I would have done anyway as I loathe both hats and red. There were parts of every town that only tarts frequented. I remember wanting to buy a little bottle of Devon Violets perfume whilst visiting my aunt in Devon. Oh no! she said. You’ll smell like a lady of The Brook! The Brook in Chatham, now home to the Job Centre, a load of traffic and some very ugly buildings – had been, in her day, the place where prostitutes walked. Waiting for sailors. She seemed to have a thing about sailors. Well, Chatham was a dockyard town so hardly surprising. On one of her visits she remarked on how tall I had grown and that I would soon be spooning with a sailor in the front room. Spooning? In those days it just meant a romantic kind of cuddling. But a sailor? Where was I going to find a sailor? Couldn’t even find a boy.

So, it was easy to get yourself a ‘name’ – and a tattoo – well, that was a permanent name. A red hat can be taken off, bottle-blonde locks can be shorn, an ankle bracelet removed. But – in those days, at least – you were stuck with a tattoo. No one would have employed you to work in an office if you had such a disfigurement, though you might have got a job as a debt-collector or “door staff”. And people would automatically assume you’d been to prison.

But of course things have changed. Both my sister and niece have tattoos, in fairly discrete regions of themselves. I even – yes, I have to admit – at one point considered investing in one myself. I was thinking of intertwined dragons – one red and one blue – on my arm. There – I said it. I thought about it. Fortunately I didn’t do it.

The dragons – well, I was born in one of the Years of the Dragon so dragons have always felt like my totem animal. I like the look of dragons in old illustrations – their sinuous and elaborate nature. If I could draw I would draw fantasy dragons, like the ones you can find on the internet nowadays. Mega-dragons, all fire and nacreous scales. And the significance pink and blue intertwined? It was some sort of weirdo-psychological stuff I was going through at the time. Kept dreaming about dragons. Pink dragons, blue dragons…

And power-stations… and pebbly beaches… and men in long black coats who might have been my father…

Wonder what it all meant…

 

* Sorry, got that wrong. I mentioned, and linked to, a Daily Post prompt called Tattoo, You but the wording is slightly different. I’ve just stumbled across the one I actually used which is from the One Minute Writer blog.