Sing Something Simple

Sometime in the ‘60s Dad bought a car, for Sunday outings. Sunday outings were the thing to do at that time. The whole family would pootle off somewhere to look at stuff they might not have looked at otherwise, and to have a picnic. On the road we would pass other families, also dutifully pootling. On the grass verges we would spy other families, dutifully picnicking. People don’t seem to picnic on grass verges nowadays, do they?

Dad used to drive us to Bedgebury Park, which meant looking at a lot of very similar trees and being bored and fractious (I’d enjoy an outing to Bedgebury much more now than I did then, which is no doubt why I didn’t enjoy it then) or to Minster-on-Sea. This meant changing into our cossies in the unsavoury public conveniences at the bottom of the road before attempting some paddling on a pebbly beach. We enjoyed Minster more.

Dad was driving a sunshine yellow Bedford van in those days. He normally cycled everywhere, come rain or come shine, including to and from work. He obviously needed transport for his growing family, and driving Mum’s parents around, but begrudged spending money on this despised rival to the racing bicycle. The Bedford van was second-hand at the very least. Probably fifth-hand. One of the sliding doors fell off at the conclusion of one outing and (in a far from sunshiny mood) Dad drove us home like that – Mum, me and my two sisters, Nan and Grandad, clinging to the slippery red upholstery in a howling gale.

Dad had a lovely deep voice and could sing in tune. Most of his singing was done in the car, on our Sunday outings. The rest of us…

Well, Mum was Mum: she never seemed to do anything exuberant or celebratory, and she didn’t sing. Nan and Grandad didn’t sing either, when they were out together as a couple. They were on their best behaviour and just sat in the back, po-faced. Nan had been known to cavort round the cherry tree singing a risky Carmen Miranda song when Grandad wasn’t in earshot, pairs of cherries draped over her ears. Mum didn’t sing, or dance, with her either.

Now, increasingly, as I grow through the ages and stages they were at then then, things become clear to me – the adult constraints; the unspoken thoughts; the hints of disagreement; the bonds and the burrs of marriage, of parenthood and of grandparent-hood; the individual loneliness under the togetherness; the misunderstandings; the way the War had silenced everyone; the way nothing must be allowed to rock the boat; the way post-War children were plentiful, but invisible, and got lost in the mix sometimes.

My youngest sister wasn’t born yet, or maybe born but too small for singing. My Canadian sister and I were close in age and we did sing, but only when Dad was in the mood to back us up, which wasn’t always. We irritated him, and the more of us there were together the more we irritated him, but he did sometimes manage to suppress that. He too was on his best – or better – behaviour.

Sister and I were particularly fond of Michael Row the Boat Ashore, often singing it several times over because we had enjoyed it so much. We even managed a wobbly freestyle harmony.

Dad had an excellent memory for lyrics and ran through all the sentimental American songs he had picked up from Sing Something Simple on the radio (featuring The Cliff Adams Singers). Don’t Fence Me In was his all-time favourite. He overlaid it with an American/ cowboy drawl, as everybody did in those days when singing American songs. They wouldn’t have sounded right otherwise:

Oh, give me land, lots of land under starry skies above

Don’t fence me in…

It’s a sad memory, as well as a happy one. I do so wish sometimes that I could wind back time at double speed, like in the movies, and be singing on a Sunday outing with my father and sister. I’m glad that then I didn’t know I was going to end up in this particular sort of now. But that’s the mercy, isn’t it? The cloud of unknowing: the shield and protector of childhood.

(I can’t say I’m a fan of Family Guy, but I love this:)

I eat my peas with honey…

Buddy – I’d find it really difficult to refer anyone or anything as my buddy, since it’s an American-English word and would kind of stick in the back of my throat. I know what it means, of course, and I know it probably came from British-English in the first place. I believe coalminers in Wales, Oop North and so forth used once to refer to their working partners as ‘butty’ since underground they would be working, literally, butt to butt.

Unfortunately,

a) there aren’t many miners or mines left, since Mrs Thatcher disposed of them;

b) ‘butty’ now means, in British-English, a kind of sandwich – because of the butter. One favourite Oop North, at least in the time of the Beatles, used to be the chip butty, which was a sandwich made with butter (of course) and chips. Except I think chips are called French fries in America – as well as over here, when the eating establishment is trying to make chips sound slightly more upper class, or – as they used to say in the fifties, when Nancy Mitford ruled the social scene – ‘U’. One was either ‘U’ (upper class) or ‘non-U’ (non-upper class) you see. Technically ‘U’ and ‘non-U’ usage is one of Britain’s many, many, many subtle sociolects, or social dialects.

Language is a minefield.

If you were middle class around the same time – and by way of kicking the metaphorical cat, as it were – you might have described a working-class person as ‘milk first’. This was social shorthand: a milk-first person was so very common that she knew no better than to put milk in her teacup and then pour tea on top of it, when it manifestly ought to be the other way round.

A middle-class person would take it for granted that a working-class person would shovel up his peas on the inside of the fork and gobble them down; instead of squashing two or three of them at a time on the back of a fork, anchored there by whatever suitably squashy substance happened to be on his plate.

With so many rules to adhere to mealtimes must have lasted forever. However, that was the point. If you were wealthy you had forever, since time and money are rough equivalents. If you were wealthy you weren’t going to be ravenous by the time the next meal came round: money also equals food as and when required, always, and no hard physical work to burn it off. It’s an attitude that lingers today in cordon bleu restaurants, where a couple of artfully-arranged rocket leaves and a teaspoonful of ‘jus’ are considered exquisitely filling and well worth the huge bill that will land on your table once you have consumed them.

You might think ‘fifties ‘U’/non ‘U’snobbery was aimed at the working classes, but you would be wrong. It was aimed by the upper classes squarely at the middle classes – those who aspired to become, or be accepted as, upper class. And who stood no chance whatsoever.

The upper classes have nothing much to fear from the working classes. These two groups will often use the same word for things – simple, plain, traditional words. The upper class have no anxiety as to their status. The accent says all that needs to be said, so one can call a spade a spade. No need to simper about a relative having passed on or passed over or even (does anyone say this nowadays?) gone beyond the veil – when in fact they have died.

Here, for your delectation and delight, is a list of what you were and were not supposed to say in the 1950s. Faint echoes of ‘common’ or ‘posh’ do still attach to some of the terms. I put them in bold, but they’re personal choices and I may, by now, be wrong. Most of them have simply become antiquated and died the death: anybody referring to radio as a ‘the wireless’ nowadays would either be very old or cultivating some sort of ironic literary fogeyish-ness. I know of no one nowadays who would refer to jam as ‘preserve’ or vegetables as ‘greens’ – but who knows.

I’ll put the ‘U’ word in ordinary type and the ‘non-U’ in italics next to it:

Bike or bicycle – Cycle

Dinner Jacket – Dress suit

Knave – Jack

Vegetables – Greens

Ice – Ice Cream

Scent – Perfume

They’ve got a very nice house – They have got a lovely home

Ill (in bed) – Sick (in bed)

Looking glass – Mirror

Chimneypiece – Mantelpiece

Graveyard – Cemetery

Spectacles – Glasses

False teeth – Dentures

Die – Pass on

Mad – Mental

Jam – Preserve

Napkin – Serviette

Sofa – Settee or Couch

Lavatory or loo – Toilet

Rich (Wealthy)

What? (Pardon?)

Good Health (Cheers)

Lunch – Dinner (for midday meal)

Pudding – Sweet

Drawing-room – Lounge

Writing-paper – Note-paper

How d’you do? – Pleased to meet you

Wireless – Radio

School(master), mistress – Teacher

Nowadays no one’s much bothered, but in the ‘fifties people took it very seriously. Even in the sixties. As an awkward, anxious teenager I once borrowed a book from my local library – Etiquette for Young Ladies. I remember the peas-to-be-squashed-on-the-back-of-the-fork thing, and practicing it at the kitchen table with mashed potato. Not that I ever went anywhere to be observed eating peas.

peas honey 3

There was something about the length of white gloves, I recall – short, elbow-length or really long white gloves being wearable with different kinds of ‘gown’. I never had a gown, but if I had had one I would have known which species of white glove to wear – if I’d had any white gloves.

There was stuff about getting out of a low-slung sports car like a model, so that one’s underwear didn’t show. That’s all gone out of the window now, to judge by all those paparazzi snaps of drunken starlets coming out of or going into nightclubs. Underwear of any kind would be nice. There was stuff about deportment. I remember walking round the kitchen with a short-lived stack of books on my head.

But if you are American, Australian or any other kind of non-Brit – no worries, sport – the unwritten rules, even what remains of them, do not apply to you and never have. Nobody will expect you to use one word in preference to another as long as your meaning is clear. In my experience Brits – perhaps having been an island race for so long – are intrigued and delighted by other accents and other people’s languages and eccentric turns-of-phrase and will go out of their way to communicate with a struggling visitor, just as long as he/she doesn’t appear to be potentially embarrassing, attention-attracting, knife-wielding or outright mad/mental.

If you do appear to be… any of the above… you may find yourself suddenly invisible having unwittingly strayed into Nutter on the Bus territory. But Nutters on Buses – they deserve a post of their own.

peas honey 2

Not quite meeting John Lennon

WOULD my life had been different, somehow, if John had been where he said he was going to be that day?

I subscribe to the theory that ‘life’ is more than just ‘you’re born, you live for a bit and then you sort of die’. I believe it is far more complex and that all of my – and, of course, your – lives are taking place simultaneously. At any given juncture, my life might choose to split into an alternative life. Possibly a new life splits off every single second. Ergo (not sure what that means, but it sounds right) there would be an infinitesimal number of ‘me’s’ in an infinitesimal number of universes right now. And since time is an illusion, right now is all there is in any case. I do not claim to have invented the concept of the multiverse – I merely mention that my sixth, or seventh and eighth senses continually confirm to me that some version of the multiverse is so.

In retrospect, only, I can sometimes identify those moments at which my life split, and that that moment, in 1969 or thereabouts, when I and my best friend Susan Margaret Smith trepidatiously circumnavigated Rochester Cathedral, one quarter hoping and three-quarters dreading that, as announced in the local newspapers, John Lennon would be waiting there to meet his fans, and we rounded the final corner to the main entrance and discovered (sigh!) that John Lennon was not there after all, was probably one of my splitting moments. What we did find was a spaced-out girl with flowers painted on both cheeks, handing out white carnations and mumbling something or other about peace. We took our carnations and returned to Rochester railway station, unenlightened. Had it been some weird Yoko-inspired publicity stunt? Had teenage girls been circumnavigating all forty-two Anglican and however-many Roman Catholic cathedrals in the UK on that same day, whilst all the time John and Yoko in the flesh, as it were, were holding a Bed-In in Montreal, or a press conference in Vienna? Presumably the ‘me’ who did meet John Lennon is living a subtly altered version of ‘my’ life now, in a subtly altered universe? Maybe in that universe John Lennon is still alive, and seventy-five. Unimaginable.

To be honest, much as I revered the musical brilliance and fancied the bell-bottoms off John Lennon and wished that Yoko Ono had somehow never existed (as indeed in many universes she wouldn’t have) I was relieved not to come face to face with him. I suspect that, given my lumpy awkwardness, zitfestation and crippling lack of social skills at the time I would have collapsed in a sweaty heap on the tarmac, turned a blotchier shade of fuchsia or been struck dumb and had to shuffle off sideways, snuffling, like a person being edged off stage into the wings, an invisible shepherd’s crook around her neck.

My life was more of less crap before I didn’t meet John Lennon and, with the exception of a few lucky breaks and the occasional shaft of sunlight penetrating its subterranean gloom, has remained so ever since. But maybe if I had met him I would have been catapulted onto a different path and might now be… might now be…