More Wee Than Water

The Strand was a kind of circular swimming pool or lido – what is the difference between a swimming pool and a lido?next to the gasometer.

I am thinking that American readers may be confused by this, since petrol is called gas in America. I am not sure what household gas would be called, in that case. Anyway, a gasometer, over here, is giant circular structure with a container inside it, which container is able to rise or fall depending on the amount of gas it happens to be accommodating. At least that’s the theory but I can’t say I’ve ever actually seen a gasometer move. They nearly always seem to be in the empty position. Maybe gasometers move so very, very slowly that you’d have to stand still on the pavement for a whole day to catch them at it, and who’s got time for that?

Gasometers are ugly, often rusty, and give off a smell of gas – or did, in the days before North Sea Gas. which is supposed to be odourless – which is noticeable for half a mile or so around. The Strand always smelt strongly of gas. That was part of its charm, as were the brightly-painted fairground swing-boats you could pay to go on; as was its unfathomable circularity. I remember children and adults queuing for admission tickets of a Saturday morning. They snaked round the outside of the building but, because of its circularity, you never quite knew how long the queue might be.

And only now it occurs to me to wonder why it was circular rather than the usual rectangular shape. Thinking back – if you mentally elevated the neighbouring gasometer over the footprint of The Strand, I wonder, would they fit exactly? Could it be that the Council originally intended to put the gasometer there, laying expensive foundations, then one Councillor had said “No, you know what? I think it would look better over there. Why not put a pool here instead!”

The Strand was great fun, if you could swim. Now-Canadian sister was utterly fearless and swam like a fish. I was timid. Whilst she was executing Overs and Overs on the metal bars that divided the deep end from the shallow end I was hopping around on one foot wearing a blue and white rubber ring, pretending to swim. Pre-pubescent girls hopping around in floatation devices were a temptation to boys of a similar age, who delighted in creeping up on them underwater and deflating them.

Boys were a menace generally, always guffawing and dive-bombing, i.e. jumping into the midst of a crowd of bathers with a great splash. Our maternal grandfather actually got his rather large nose badly broken and bent out of shape by such a swimming-pool dive-bomber: all the way through the First World War and then to be facially deformed by some trivial jumping idiot. Boys also specialised in letting off streams of… bubbles; and they wee’d in the water. Well, everyone did that; the Strand was More Wee than Water most of the time.

Mad people in particular, seemed to be drawn to The Strand. The changing cubicles were ranged in two half-circles around the edge: ladies and girls to the left, men and boys to the right. It was not unknown for an elderly, bewildered and naked adult to emerge from one side or another, to the accompaniment of cheers, and to need to be retrieved by the lifeguards. Lifeguards were angry teenagers who sat up on wobbly high chairs like in Baywatch, only with acne and without the slow-motion orange-clad running. They mostly bellowed things like “You have been warned, little boy!” and “Do that again, you pusillanimous wretch (or some similar expression) and you will be banned!

The Strand was heavily chlorinated – had to be, I suppose – and had a tendency to turn blonde hair a deep green. At the end of the summer, a lot of witchy-looking formerly blonde little girls returned to their classes. Luckily I wasn’t blonde; however, there was no escaping the chlorine. Going home on the bus, clutching a duffel-bag-full of poorly wrung out bathing costume and towel, our hair still dripping, was a stinky affair. The only consolation was the twisted glory of the barley-sugar sticks we bought ourselves in the sweetshop on the way back up the hill.

Prayers, Pipe-smoke and the Problem Page

I have a bit of a soft spot for Woman’s Realm. Not that I buy it. Oh no, that would be… a no-no. Mostly I get a heap of them, back-dated, in a Tesco bag. It’s a bit like one of those drug-dealer exchanges on motorway slip-roads. Betty passes them over to me in the car park of Mum’s care home. We meet up there before the Visit, cars parked neatly side by side, both of us dreading the Going In and longing for the Coming Out. It sounds awful, doesn’t it? Not wanting to go in? I feel a bit better because Betty feels the same. I email her in advance.

Are you OK for a visit to Mum this Sunday, usual time and place?

And inevitably she emails back something like: I’m game if you are or If you can do it, I can.

I realise she is not coming to see Mum, now, but to give me the courage to see her.

Older than Mum, she has been with us both since before I was born. She knew me when I was an awkward bump. She used to look after me every Friday evening so that Mum and Dad could go out. A single lady, she told me recently she was terrified every time that Something Dreadful might happen to me whilst I was in her care and it would all be her fault. And yet she is reassurance itself.

It has always seemed to me that Betty could cope with anything. She is the very embodiment of Keep Calm and Carry On. But I sense that she is out of her depth in this nightmare of a place, and with the nightmare Mum is becoming. Too close to home, I guess, to be sat amongst those who are the same age as you or younger; in constant peril of being mistaken for an inmate and hoisted into a wheelchair or forced to drink yet more cranberry juice from a plastic cup.

Mind you, the inmates mistake me for an inmate sometimes. And other times they mistake me for the person who knows where their lost suitcase is, or the person who has come to cut their toenails, or the person who speaks fluent Italian. I made the mistake last week of trying out my few phrases of Italian on Maria, whose word-of-choice is Bella! (Mum’s is Well…)

Yole vole lavare quista camichetta? I ventured, remembering the phrase from a long-ago BBC Learning Zone programme. Non parl… speak Italian… much.

Poco? She pinches her fingers together. She has no teeth. Her chin all buts the end of her nose, like the witches in fairy-tale book illustrations.

Si, molto poco.

Bella!

La sciarpetta?

Poco.

And then a lady from the church arrives to bring her communion. We watch as the priest-lady sets out a tiny cross on a white handkerchief. It has been ironed into quarters. She takes out a prayer book, and a little silver container of communion wafers. She has just gone through the exact same service for the only other Catholic lady in another room. We listen to the prayer for the sick, and to other prayers. We listen as she says In the name of the Father… and Maria crosses herself and mumbles in nomine patris…Bella! I find the prayers soothing, though they are not intended for me. I wonder if I should start reading the Bible a bit, knowing I probably won’t.

Betty, I sense, does not find the prayers soothing, rather the opposite, and yet she is the nearest thing to a Guardian Angel I have ever known. She guarded Mum and now she’s doing what she can to guard me. But she is fidgeting and trying not to look at the door.

Well occasionally in moments of extreme stress I do buy a Woman’s Realm. Woman’s Realm is to me what chocolate – or Baileys Irish Cream – are to other women: comfort reading, because the magazine reminds me of Nan.

Every Sunday I used to go along the road to Nan and Grandad’s for Sunday Dinner and Sunday Tea. A whole day’s respite, if you counted Sunday School first, from having to keep out of my father’s way and from having to protect my mother from anything that might set off her Nerves again and have her lying on the sofa with her eyes shut, clutching a handkerchief in hands that shook and shook.

Every Sunday – well, I’ve written about it before – but while Nan was cooking our Sunday Dinner I would hang around with Grandad in the living room. He would fill his pipe with St Bruno Flake and fill the whole room with a thick fug of aromatic, if unhealthy, smoke. He would idle through pink back-copies of The Carpenter & Joiner and I would read Nan’s Woman’s Realm.

I was supposed to be reading it only for a cartoon about a family of little robins – Mummy Robin, Daddy Robin and… Other Robins, but I didn’t understand the cartoon much. What I liked to look at was the knitting patterns – lantern-jawed husband-material posed stiffly in black and white, showing off their new blackberry-stitch cardigan – babies surrounded by lacy layettes, a halo of little shawls, bonnets, cardis and bootees of infinite complexity.

fair isle.jpg

I seized my chance to create one of these challenging little lacy things – a cardigan, it was, complete with buttons and knitted buttonholes – for my youngest sister when she was expecting her first child. It didn’t go down too well. Apparently the modern baby wears the baby-grow.

I read at least sections of those endless romantic serials, wondering why there was such a scarcity of stern, broken-hearted Highland Lairds in my part of Kent.

And, of course, I read the Problem Page. It was always at the back, so easy to find. From readers’ letters I learned, after a fashion, the facts of life. My innocent requests for the Meanings of Long Words forced Nan to explain, albeit in a whimsical and euphemistic manner, Certain Things to me that might come in useful later (though not very useful, as it turned out). I doubt if Mum would even have mentioned them.

Dooz Oofs Ay Poms De Tare Fritz

There’s pampering, of course. I’ve never quite known what this entails but it sounds terrifying. Something to do with buying – or trying – a lot of pampering products and sitting around in some girl’s bedroom, hundreds of you, all in towelling dressing-gowns, giggling and offering to paint one another’s toenails. Oh no!

Or I suppose you can go to a spa. Can you go to a spa, for pampering? For a treat? What does that involve? More towelling dressing-gowns. Those disposable slippers they give you in posh hotels, sitting about on loungers waiting for your turn to have heavy stones laid along your naked spine or for someone to cover you in mud and cucumber slices. Oh no no no!

What would your idea of a treat be?

My treats have tended to get smaller and more innocent as I’ve got poorer and older, but nonetheless treats for all that.

Sometimes I drive to that distant town and I treat myself to egg and chips and a pot of tea in the café opposite the Post Office. The egg is underdone; the chips are those long thin ones that are probably made of reconstituted potato dust rather than sliced potato. I don’t care: it’s hot food and somebody else has cooked it.

I am reminded of Grandad, who was in the first world war. He was over in France and the only bit of ‘French’ he had – or at least would admit to in front of his grandchildren – was ‘dooz oofs ay poms de tare Fritz sil voo plate’. Maybe it’s genetic, then – a racial or familial memory.

I sit facing the window. I watch people coming out of the Post Office and going in. I pour my tea, lovingly, from a cheap white china pot. I savour the fact that there are two cups of tea in this one teapot. I examine the strange tube of sugar they provide before shuffling it into my handbag (it’ll do for visitors). I read the little poem they print on the paper serviette. What a good idea, to have poems on serviettes. Sometimes it rains and the window steams up from all those damp coats coming in. Sometimes it doesn’t. The ladies behind the counter are friendly. You pay on your way out, not on your way in. Civilised, like.

Chocolates. Mum used to allow Dad one chocolate a day because she was watching their weight. Poor Dad. He was eighty-seven and could hardly move from his armchair. A trip to the loo was a major expedition involving the zimmer frame and a lot of shuffling. Surely he could have had three chocolates? At eighty-seven-and-losing-your-mind does it really matter if you put on a few pounds? For myself, I avoid chocolates, simply because I couldn’t eat just one. A whole box would be gone just like that.

There seems to be a theme to my treats. Could it be food?

Do you allow yourself any special treats?

Rolled round in earth’s diurnal course

Am I alone in thinking that God only pokes His head out when the congregation goes away? Or maybe I mean that He is there all the time, quietly, but you’re more likely to find him if you go between services, when hymns aren’t being sung; when rabbits are sunbathing among those time-smoothed, drunken gravestones; when bees buzz and crickets chirrup. I never yet sensed God in a church service, but if you go to a church alone, and don’t look for Him, or even think about Him, sometimes He seems to be there, keeping you company.

I like the silent church before the service begins, better than any preaching.

Ralph Waldo Emerson

I worked in one of the 0ffices at Wye College for a while and spent my lunch-hours over at the church. If it was rainy I sat in that porch thing at the front, on the hard bench, and ate my sandwiches, but if it was sunny I sat at the back of the graveyard under a tree. Nearby was a new white headstone, with a teenager’s name, and a picture of a musical instrument engraved on it. The gilding was still intact. It was sad, this new, white stone at the back, among all the unreadable, moss-covered ones, but we kept each other company. The dead, like God, like a bit of company from time to time. Sometimes I would talk to my grandmother in that churchyard, even though she wasn’t buried there. In fact, I don’t think she has a proper grave. They cremated her, as was the fashion. Grandad wasn’t allowed to go to the service – or maybe he just couldn’t face it. I never did get to the bottom of that one. We came back to find him staring at the knitting she had left behind on her chair. He hadn’t moved it.

I’ve visited most of the churches on Romney Marsh. My favourite is St Thomas à Becket at Fairfield; the one I used to walk to with my parents. They used to rent a chalet in the grounds of a farm, miles away from anywhere. You couldn’t even get a mobile phone signal; there was a strong smell of garlic at certain times of year – we imagined it was wild garlic, a plant we had vaguely heard of, but a turkey farmer’s wife (poor old turkeys) told us it was something they sprayed on the potato crops to stop them getting wireworm. Frogs sang in the ditches. It is rumoured that the frogs on Romney Marsh are a rare, giant variety, unlike any others in Britain. You never get to see them, though, so it’s difficult to tell. They just serenade you, invisibly.

Fairfield Church is right out in the middle of a field. To get to it you have to borrow a giant, old-fashioned key from a house further down the lane, then walk back. You have to get in through an awkward gate or over an awkward style – I can’t remember which at the moment – and then walk out to it, along a grassy causeway. All the way, you are having to look where you are going because of all the cowpats and sheep-droppings. And even then it’s not straightforward. The door is round the back, and then when you go in – it’s tiny, with box pews and a triple-decker pulpit, and bells. It’s quiet in a way that almost makes you uneasy. It’s quiet in a knowing you are here sort of way. The church, or what’s inside it, is considering you – very carefully. But I like it because it reminds me of holidays, and Mum and Dad when they were at their happiest and easiest to get on with.

Like many places on the Marsh, at one time you could often only reach it by boat during the winter flooding. I visited it once with my then-husband and a friend of his. That was a different sort of day, in the autumn. The key had already been collected, and there were cows in the field, all round the church. A low-lying mist meant you couldn’t see the bottoms of their legs, so they looked… truncated. Ghostly. And when we opened the door we found a party of bell-ringers inside, circling round the bell-ropes. They treated us to some unexpected music, and told us they were on holiday, touring churches and ringing in every one.

I have sat about in graveyards all over the place, come to think of it. In Ashford town centre there’s a weird one, where they moved all the gravestones over to a narrow strip on the left to make way for a square little park, with diamond-shaped borders and row upon row of purple and yellow pansies. I sat in there sometimes, with my everlasting sandwiches, on one of the uncomfortable benches under the evenly-spaced trees, but my eyes were always drawn to the left, and those heaped and broken gravestones. What is the point of gravestones, I wonder, if people are going to move them? Does it matter that there is no one left to remember the person the name belonged to? Surely it only matters that they are there, in the earth, keeping us company? Circling with us under the sun. Wordsworth got it right. In that place of desecration, I would often think of his lines:

          A SLUMBER did my spirit seal;
            I had no human fears:
          She seemed a thing that could not feel
            The touch of earthly years.

          No motion has she now, no force;
            She neither hears nor sees;
          Rolled round in earth's diurnal course,
            With rocks, and stones, and trees.

 

I’m ‘Enery the Eighth, I am

  • I’m ‘Enery the Eighth, I am,
  • ‘Enery the Eighth I am, I am!
  • I got married to the widow next door,
  • She’s been married seven times before
  • And every one was an ‘Enery
  • She wouldn’t have a Willie nor a Sam
  • I’m her eighth old man named ‘Enery
  • ‘Enery the Eighth, I am!

I remember this song being rattled out over the radio when I was a child. For non-British readers I should mention – though it’s probably fairly obvious – that the lyrics are slightly saucy, and would definitely have been so in 1910 when the song was written, since Willie is the common term for a gentleman’s naughty-bits.

(My Polish vet accidentally managed to amuse me by enquiring of William, one of my many ginger moggies “And how’s my Leetle Willy?” I kept a straight face – inherited from Grandad, see below.)

It was written in 1910 and originally sung by music hall star Harry Champion. He must have made a record of it since even I am not old enough to have been to the music hall, although my Grandfather did. My Grandfather was a silent, dour sort of chap. You had to know him well to tell when he was being humorous. No twinkle appeared in his eye. He never smiled, or particularly looked in your direction. There might have been no one in the room with him. He just went on, puffing at his pipe, staring into space and suddenly you’d find yourself thinking – that was funny!

But obviously he couldn’t always have been like that, since he once told a story about sitting up in the balcony with his mates at the music hall –a rather risqué place to go in those days – peeling oranges and aiming the peel down the collars of the people in the seats below. I suppose he may have had his pipe clenched between his teeth like Popeye even then, since he told he started on the old St Bruno Flake at nine. Or was that also a joke?

Anyway, that was the sort of song he would have heard, and probably enjoyed singing along to. And some of the songs lived on, long after music hall itself had faded out, overtaken by the new cinemas of the 1920s. My father used to come out with a scattering of semi-nonsensical verses to amuse us. Most of them required a cockney accent, but then most of us in the C1 to E demographic can do a fairish cockney accent, if encouraged and in cheery mood. (Unlike Dick Van Dyke who in the 1964 musical film Mary Poppins perpetrated absolutely the worst cockney accent of all time):

  • Oh! it really is a wery pretty garden
  • And ‘Endon to the westward could be seen
  • And by clinging to the chimbley
  • You could see across to Wembley
  • If it wasn’t for the ‘ouses in between

and

  •  My old man said “Foller the van,
  • And don’t dilly dally on the way”.
  • Off went the van wiv me ‘ome packed in it,
  • I followed on wiv me old cock linnet.
  • But I dillied and dallied, dallied and I dillied
  • Lost me way and don’t know where to roam.
  • Well you can’t trust a special like the old time coppers.
  • When you can’t find your way ‘ome.

and

  •  Oh! Mr Porter, what shall I do?
  • I want to go to Birmingham
  • And they’re taking me on to Crewe,
  • Take me back to London, as quickly as you can,
  • Oh! Mr Porter, what a silly girl I am.

It’s difficult to explain how very comforting these silly old tunes and daft words can be if you’re British, especially in beleaguered times when disgusting diseases, criss-crossing warplanes, random shootings and chemical weapons feel as if they’re coming out of the woodwork at us. They act as a kind of charm and a litany – akin to the Shipping Forecast on Radio 4 every night. The announcer starts: And now the Shipping Forecast, issued by the Met Office on behalf of the Maritime and Coastguard Agency at [time of issue] today – then embarks on his measured, methodical progress, clockwise around the waters around the British Isles.

And somehow you feel… it’s OK. We’re still an island, safely surrounded by tracts of water we can’t imagine and which the majority wouldn’t recognise if we saw them, and over which it might currently be hailing or snowing, blowing a gale, threatening rain. There they all are: Viking, North Utsire, South Utsire, Forties, Cromarty, Forth, Tyne, Dogger, Fisher, German Bight, Humber…

Nothing bad can have happened –Radio 4 is still talking to us and we’re still wrapped in our blanket of sea. It’s not the words themselves it’s the sound and the rhythm, like poetry. In a world of nuclear weapons, random shootings and dire diseases, they are a charm and a litany. They comfort us greatly.

As, of course, do a few special pieces of music. And this is one of them:

 

South Korean violinist Julia Hwang, then aged 15

The Lark Ascending: Ralph Vaughan Williams

 It was inspired by a poem of the same name by George Meredith (1828–1909) which begins:

  • HE rises and begins to round,
  • He drops the silver chain of sound
  • Of many links without a break,
  • In chirrup, whistle, slur and shake,
  • All intervolv’d and spreading wide,
  • Like water-dimples down a tide
  • Where ripple ripple overcurls
  • And eddy into eddy whirls….

I have to say I’m not convinced this picture, which was listed as ‘lark’, is actually a lark, or a sky-lark. I thought they were plain brown and speckled. No doubt bird-watchers the world over have been muttering to themselves throughout this piece either ‘That’s not a lark!’ (if it actually isn’t) or ‘What a pretty lark’ (if it actually is). Whatever – it’s meant to be a lark. It symbolises lark… It represents lark…

A brush with Herbert

The person I would most like to sit down and have a chat with in front of a roaring log fire is: Herbert Brush. And he’s not even a real person. Or rather he was a real person; Herbert Brush was just not his real name.

It may be partly the name. My grandfather was a Herbert. At his funeral service the lady vicar, never having met Grandad and assuming that Bert was short for Albert, referred to him Our Brother Albert throughout. I should have stood up for him. I’ve always felt guilty that I didn’t. I should have stood up regardless of the embarrassment to myself, my parents and the lady vicar, and screeched HERBERT, HERBERT, HERBERT. But you don’t, when it comes to it, do you?

Herbert Brush, almost certainly, was the pseudonym attached to a gentleman called Reginald Charles Harpur, from Sydenham, South East London. He kept diaries for a UK wartime project known as Mass Observation, submitting his daily life “observations” each month. Today, I suspect, he would be an enthusiastic blogger.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mass-Observation

Mass Observation was an eccentric anthropological study, run on a shoestring by anthropologist Tom Harrisson, poet Charles Madge and filmmaker Humphrey Jennings. ‘Herbert’ was one of approximately 500 volunteer wartime writers. Even more famous than Herbert is the redoubtable ‘Nella Last’ (also a pseudonym) from Barrow-in-Furness whose later life was dramatized in 2006 by British comedienne, actress and writer Victoria Wood.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Housewife,_49

Nella wrote and wrote – and wrote – approximately two million words between 1936, when she was aged 49 – hence Housewife, 49 – and 1966. She used her diary to counteract the depressions to which she was prone and also to ‘vent’ a side of her personality that her gloomy, awkward husband suppressed. Her diaries – unintentionally – follow her partial emancipation from the stereotypical ‘housewife’ she sees herself as at the beginning – to a much stronger, feistier woman by the end. She was so prolific, so idiosyncratic in character and power of expression (and punctuation) that she has books all to herself:

  • Nella Last’s War (Ed: Richard Broad and Suzie Fleming)
  • Nella Last’s Peace (Ed: Patricia and Robert Malcolmson)
  • Nella Last in the 1950s: Further diaries of Housewife, 49 (Ed: Patricia Malcolmson)
  • She also makes brief, early appearances in Our Longest Days: a people’s history of the Second World War (Ed: Sandra Koa Wing).

Nella Last has her dark side, and her tragedies, though on the whole reading her observations is pure delight. She loves cooking, and details all the crafty ‘dodges’ she contrives to whip up meals of some sort for her family during the worst years of rationing. We also hear how she goes about making clothes, saving money and sewing her ‘dollies’ for the hospital.

Herbert Brush is, if you like, Nella Last’s southern equivalent and he is an extraordinary character – lighter, more comic than Nella Last although, living through the same war and at a more advanced age, his life had its difficulties too. I do hope that someday there will be a ‘collected’ Herbert Brush, since at the moment his entries are dotted about, mixed in with all the other published observations and therefore a pain to locate. It takes a while to build up a ‘flavour’ of Herbert.

Reginald Charles Harpur (almost certainly Herbert Brush) was already 73 years of age in 1945 but lived on until 1959. He lived in the same house in Sydenham from 1939 to 1959, sharing it with ‘W’ (thought to be Winifred Gunton), ‘D’ (thought to be Dorothy Woods) and a cat. This is a mystery in itself. What was the relationship between these three people (and the cat)? We will probably never know. He was a retired electricity board inspector and wrote for Mass Observation between 1940 and 1951.

He is a master of the non-sequitur, of po-faced inconsequentiality, and the joy of him is that you will never, ever be entirely sure that he intends to be amusing. It’s those killer final phrases, those bathetic endings. He also writes poetry to rival that famous Scottish poet William Topaz McGonagall, originator of the immortal lines:

  • Beautiful Railway Bridge of the Silv’ry Tay!
  • Alas! I am very sorry to say
  • That ninety lives have been taken away
  • On the last Sabbath day of 1879,
  • Which will be remember’d for a very long time

and

  • On yonder hill, there stood a coo…..
  • ….It’s no there noo,
  • it must have shifted

 Apparently students used to bang on poor McGonagall’s front door in the middle of the night, to wake him and tell him how bad a poet he was.

Impossible to choose which of Herbert’s many utterances to include so here are just a few, taken from wherever Our Hidden Lives happened to fall open. Best really to get copies of the books in which he appears (eg. from Amazon) and meet Herbert for yourself.

  • Our Longest Days (Ed: Sandra Koa Wing)
  • Our Hidden Lives (Ed: Simon Garfield)

7 p.m. I have been on the plot most of the day. I believe the judges in the competition come round for their first visit before the middle of May, so I have been busy trying to make the plot tidy. I have fixed up another seat at the end of the plot close to the hedge so that I can sit in the shelter during showers. This was the spot where I pressed myself into the hedge with the bucket over my head when a rocket burst overhead and bits of it came down all round me.

Wednesday 9 May, 1945

I have been reading about Harry Price’s book on poltergeists in England and it makes me wonder whether it was a poltergeist which worried me when I lived in Rose Cottage, River, near Dover. The noises got so bad that I was glad to leave the house.

I never managed to explain the things that happened to me there. I might be reading a book by the fireside in the evening, when suddenly my back hair would seem to stand up, a cold shiver would run down my spine and I felt sure that someone or something was behind me in the room. I asked a local spiritualistic medium to come and investigate, so he came with others, and presently he went into a trance, or seemed to, and said that a man who used to live at the house, and who committed suicide years before, objected to me very much.

Wednesday 21 November, 1945

I went to Hyde Park to see the captured German aeroplanes which are parked there, surrounded by a fence. I noticed a few bullet holes in one of them and wondered whether the German who flew the machine had died there. I hope so.

There were hundreds of people walking about, with little crowds near each plane. One young man brought his chair close to the fence, and with his face pressed close to the railings was staring in a sort of fascinated way at one of the planes, as though he wanted to memorise every detail. I watched him for some time but he never moved a muscle.

I got a seat under a tree and ate my lunch, and I forgot to look for the young man when I came back. Probably my thoughts were on the chances of a ticket collector coming along and charging me 2d. for the chair.

Monday 17 September, 1945

The BBC news at one o’clock said that there was quite a pea-soup fog in some parts of London, but in SE26 it was quite clear, so I went to the plot and sewed a row of broad beans. I had only just finished when I smelt fog, and, looking up, saw a wall of it coming my way. Very soon the sun was yellow and then vanished, so I came home as I don’t like the taste of London fog.

I thought I’d see what sort of verse came out of it if I put pen to paper.

  • Sometimes I sit and think
  • Sometimes I only sit
  • And do not even blink
  • For quite a bit
  • Is this a sign of age
  • Does life just flow
  • Like turning on a page
  • I’d like to know.

It sounds morbid, but after my exercise on the plot I’m feeling very fit.

Tuesday 21 January, 1945

I think I probably feel an affinity for Herbert because he reminds me so much of my own grandfather. It’s more than just the coincidence of the name. In all the time I knew him I don’t remember Grandad smiling once, yet he somehow managed to make people laugh. If we children were chattering too much he’d sit in gloomy silence for half an hour before intervening, in his creaky old voice: Can I say something now?

If anyone asked his opinion, he’d say: You do what you want – you usually do.

And if he was asked what he was going to do tomorrow, he would provide a gloomy summary, finishing with: IF I’m spared.

A visiting daughter-in-law presented him with a huge cake once, and his response was: How am I going to get rid of all that?

And yet this was the man who, as a teenager, liked to sit with his mates in the upper tiers of the music hall, peeling oranges and dropping the peel down the necks of the people sitting below.

For further information on Herbert Brush and Sydenham visit:

http://sydenhamforesthillhistory.blogspot.co.uk/search/label/mass%20observation

PS: I recently discovered an old blog called Blue, with Stars, and discover that I already posted about dear old Herbert there and even used the same title for the post. And I thought I was being so clever inventing that one. So here, for comparison, is my Blue, with Stars post for: Saturday, May 21, 2005

  •  A Brush with Herbert
  •  Still reading the book of post-war reminiscences (Mass-Observation Project). It’s surprising how they do come out as characters, even though no one is ‘writing’ them. Each person is just rambling on happily through his or her diary, commenting on everyday things, and yet you can almost see them. Pensioner Herbert Brush is the best – sometimes intentionally, sometimes unintentionally funny. He is greatly concerned about his health – his piles, a lump on his back which the doctor charged him 5/- to tell him was harmless, the purple marks appearing on the backs of his hands. He wonders about things. He spends a long time playing with numbers and searching unsuccessfully for a book which gives all the prime numbers up to some huge amount. He writes dreadful poetry. He does a lot of travelling about on buses, changing of library books, growing of vegetables in his allotment, and always seems to be creosoting his fence.
  •  I am enjoying it because that’s when I grew up, and yet I don’t remember. I didn’t enjoy being a child. Didn’t understand why people were the way they were, and things were so drab and dreary. This book has explained why to me. And I envied in a way their modest expectations. They accepted their everyday lives, even when they complained about them. They didn’t expect anything exciting to happen. I suppose they were just relieved to be still alive. However, that lack of aspiration, that dulling of everything – suburban England in the 50s was not a good time to be a child, not a good start for a dreamer.