Just a paper bag, brown, crumpled, ripped in places, tired and well used, scrunched tightly together at the top, creating a neck in which to hold the seemingly innocuous sac. Placed carefully on the bedside table, a breeze from the window behind brushed past; a brief rustling of wrapping awoke me from a light afternoon nap. Suddenly I looked up, making sure the bag was still in-situ, moving my hand, touching, tapping, stroking it; a sigh of relief, it was safe, unmoved, untouched, safely by my side!
A red glow filtered calmly through the window, dancing majestically off the wardrobe doors, illuminating the newly installed Star Wars wallpaper on the left hand side of the room. My eyes slowly opened, focusing on C3PO, whose golden glow shone flamboyant red, the room illuminated with colour. Eyes averted, the paper bag lit up, like a fire burning bright, slowly awaking me from my slumber. It was time to rise, and get ready to go to Nanny’s house, a short walk away. I stretched upwards, firmly above my head, unceremoniously dropping my left arm, crashing down onto the bed below, accidentally knocking the bag to the floor. Panic ensued as I feverishly, frantically tried to find it; finally located lodged between the bed and the bedside table, trapped upside down, contents spilling over the floor!
I jumped down onto the carpet, running my hand under the divan, urgently determined to find my most ‘precious things.’ Heirlooms, treasures that meant everything, items I took with me wherever I went, stored safely in my brown paper bag, were now tumbling all over the floor! My cheek pressed firmly against the felt base of the bed, I tried to push my arm further, deeper into the dark, moving it, right to left, flicking out whatever was inside. A half eaten packet of Opal Fruits, an unopened tube of spangles, some Black Jacks I had been saving for later and my tiny orange cat, no bigger than my thumb, part of my farmyard, usually stored in the airing cupboard in the hall.
Mum shouted upstairs .’What’s all the noise? What are you doing? We are going out in a minute, hurry up and come downstairs!’
‘I’ll be their, stop going on, I’m just getting my things!’ I replied, still searching furiously for the contents of the bag.
Finally, out popped a Parker Pen, that Aunt Susan had given me for Christmas and a Wade Whimsie Giraffe, that I always had with me, despite falling over in the street with it a few weeks before, cutting open my finger as I fell. Earless, chipped and scuffed the little china animal was a special friend, someone to talk to when there was no one and my first purchase from the Post Office, with some Birthday money from Nan.
Some string, old shiny Quality Street wrappers, a handful of marbles, two conkers and a pair of blue woollen mittens held together with string, completed the collection. Quickly I put them back into the carrier and cautiously made my way downstairs, holding tightly onto the banister, not wanting a repeat performance.
I held onto the bag even more tightly than usual, as we walked into Nan’s, pressing it hard into my hip. Even when Mum took off my duffle coat, I wouldn’t let go, the pouch passing up my sleeve, following my arm. As Mum pulled the coat over my head, I spied Nan from the corner of my eye, chuckling ever so slightly - ‘A handbag, he always has a handbag, that’s our boy, the boy with the bag!’
Nan always said she knew I was gay, because of the 'minaudière' I carried, it was a kind of family joke. Of course it has nothing to do with my sexuality, but it is a memory of a childhood I would relive again tomorrow. My Nan is no longer here, the bag and contents long since gone, but the memories are still burning strong, recollections important, special, so clear! Cherished moments stored tightly, the real reason all of us belong!
Children’s television in the late 1970s, early 80s was hit and miss. During the school holidays there was an eclectic mix of children’s shows to watch, to suit every taste, my favourite ‘Why Don't You Just Switch Off Your Television Set and Go Out and Do Something Less Boring Instead.’ In the early evening during term time, there were other exciting programmes, forever linked with my childhood - ‘Grange Hill,’ ‘Emu’s World’ and ‘Think of a Number,’ with the unforgettable Johnny Ball. There were of course many other productions too numerous to mention; at the time they were a link to the outside World, that a small boy like me could only dream of. I became interested in television, the celebrities, their lives and always dreamed of being an actor, in a World far removed from my own.
Children’s TV was an escape from the difficulties at school. As a child I was brought up on ‘Blue Peter,’ ‘Playschool’ and my favourite ‘Chorlton and the wheelies,’ a rather psychedelic, at times disturbing, typical of the time, animated children’s television show. They were a big part of my childhood and hold many happy memories for me, sat with Mum, happily involved with the saga on the screen. After watching similar, modern performances today, I can safely say the shows are a poor relation of those produced in the 1970s.
The school bell sounded twelve fifteen, it was time for lunch, my brown Adidas bag was already packed, as I sneakily put my school work into the holdall ten minutes before we were due to leave. It was the early 1980s and I was walking home for lunch each day. Our house was situated a short distance away and I no longer wanted to stay at school, eating the by now unpalatable school dinners. Getting home as quickly as possible was important, not only was I hungry, but my favourite television show was only fifteen minutes away, ‘The Sullivans,’ a period Australian drama, following the exploits of a middle class family in Melbourne, living through the stress of World War II. This show was popular with all my peers in the time before ‘Neighbours,’ that other famous Ozzy show, took to the air. The Sullivan’s was a stepping stone into adult television, leaving the early years behind.
Running down the side of the house, I could hear the opening credits playing on the box. I threw my bag and coat down on the kitchen floor, shouting ‘Hi Mum,’ as I turned right into the lounge, laying flat on the floor in front of the set, just in time for today’s episode. ‘Remove your shoes!’ I heard Mum shout, just before I began to kick off my scuffed pair of shiny black Clark’s that I had forgotten to take off. Excited, I laid fixated on the screen, not wanting to miss a moment, oblivious to everything else that was going on around me.
Mum called through the kitchen hatch. ‘Come and get your dinner, eat it while it’s hot.’ Still glued to the television, I walked over to the dining room and took the plate from Mum – Beans on toast, with a sprinkling of strong cheddar cheese, followed by a hot cup of tea and a chocolate Swiss roll! As I sat there eating, watching the television I was conscious of the time, constantly watching the clock.
Seconds after ‘The Sullivans’ ended, I ran into the hall, replaced my shoes, laces left undone and grabbed my discarded satchel and jacket, that had by now been neatly placed on the hooks in the porch. ‘I’ve got to go, I’ll be late!’ I exclaimed, jumping up, kissing Mum on the cheek. ‘Don’t run, you’ve just eaten, you’ll get indigestion!’ she shouted, as I scooted out of the back door, heading towards my friends house in Fareham Park Road, picking him up on the way to School. We both began to short walk back to Henry Cort, talking about the drama on the screen, what would happen tomorrow, and what we had for lunch? Falling through the gates, we headed towards the gym for an afternoon of PE, my least favourite subject; it was time to work off our tea!
I had eventually fallen asleep at midnight, too excited about the morning ahead. It was Christmas Day and I could feel a chill in the air. As I laid in bed, my cold breath flowed freely into the room, steaming up the window behind the bed. The first yawn of the day and I was awake, stretching my arms up as far as I could; clasping my hands tightly I cracked my fingers together, finally bursting into life. After laying there for a few moments, I looked up towards the chink in the curtains above, it was still dark, the moon high in the sky. I turned over, kneeled up and peered through the glass, making a peep hole with my hand so I could see outside. I observed the red flashing lights on the Power station in the distance and looked on with anticipation as the neighbourhood also stirred into action, welcoming in Christmas Day!
My brother was still asleep in the bed next to mine, not even my loud banging could arouse his slumber. Like me, he had been awake long into the night and fell asleep well after I finally shut my eyes. The light turned on in the upstairs hall, Mum and Dad were awake, it was time to get up. I slipped my feet into my burgundy and black checked slippers and grabbed my dressing gown from the hook at the back of the door, quickly throwing it around my shoulders as I made a mad dash for the toilet. All the excitement and the cold crisp morning had brought on an immediate urge to pee. As I put my hand on the latch of the door, pushing it down, I realised someone was inside. “Hurry up, I dying to go,” I shouted, just as Dad came out the door.
Rushing eagerly down stairs, I could see the Christmas lights glistening on the half open sitting room door, inviting me inside. Looking around I saw pillowcases of presents, stockings full of sweets and a bike in the corner, the bike I had wanted and pleaded with Mum and Dad to get me for Christmas, not a Chopper like my friends, but a bright orange/yellow Budgie bike. It was beautiful, sparkling under the lights of the tree, reflecting the bright 70s colour into the room; specs of luminosity flickered around the walls; it was magical and all mine to keep!
With my little Brother finally downstairs, and the turkey cooking in the oven, presents opened and chocolates consumed, we all sat down as a family watching ‘Top Of The Pops’ on television. Mum walked back and forth checking on the dinner, basting, steaming, boiling and stirring the gravy. Dad made his way to the kitchen opening a bottle of sparkling wine, laying crackers neatly above the plates, polishing the best silver cutlery with a cloth. With the table set, Mum called us inside and we sat down to a feast set for a king. Roast potatoes, three roast meats, stuffing, five different types of veg, pigs in blankets and lashing of hot gravy. After a hearty dinner, hot Christmas pudding with thick whipped cream, we finally finished our meal, just in time for the Queen!
Running out of the kitchen, around the door to the lounge I jumped on the sofa, just managing to hear the National Anthem play. This music always sent shivers down my spine, stirring emotions inside, even as a young boy. Watching Her Majesty, before the Christmas Day film was somewhat of a tradition for me and Mother at least, sitting quietly listening to the Queens every word. She never said anything controversial or particularly memorable, but just hearing her voice at three o clock made Christmas day complete.
For the next few hours we played with our Christmas booty before getting ready for an evening at Nan’s. Precious memories of a childhood spent with a loving family; a time of innocence, without a care in the World, enjoying the festive season that seems so long ago today. These times we can never repeat but can look back on with fondness, important events that defined my life, that cut through this World, so bitter, so angry, so full of strife!
Laying on the bed face down, my legs were bent at the knees, kicking the air, excitedly, as I flicked through the pages of Mum’s catalogue. As far back as I can remember Mother had always bought all our Christmas and Birthday presents from the thousand page book that sat in the corner of the sitting room. Mum had asked me what I wanted for Christmas; immediately I headed for ‘Freemans’ to satisfy my curiosity. At eight years old, the book felt as heavy as me, as I grabbed the corner of the binding, dragging it from its home under an occasional table next to the settee. Puffing and panting, sweat pouring from my brow, I managed to get the catalogue up to my bedroom, crawling on my knees, throwing it loudly on the staircase, one step at a time. ‘Do it quietly!’ I heard Mum shout from the kitchen ‘….and don’t fall down the stairs!’
Mail order or home shopping was all the rage at the time. In the late 1970s, families didn’t have an endless supply of credit and money to buy presents or luxury items. Mum and Dad were typical of most; the only debt they had was the installments owed to the catalogue company each month, spreading the cost of Christmas and other family occasions over the course of the year. Growing up as a child this ‘book of wondrous things,’ was a big part of my life. Rather like the internet of today, it was packed with gifts and clothes I couldn’t afford and provided an escape into a materialistic World of inanimate objects and frivolous spending!
I became aware of my sexuality, thanks to the ‘big book,’ always turning first to the men’s underwear section towards the back. While Mum and Dad slept soundly at night, I would gingerly walk down stairs, not making a sound, procuring the catalogue. Sitting away from the door, hiding from anyone who could perchance walk by, I crouched down at the side of Dads favourite chair, knees up to my chin, shivering from the chill of the night. Barely able to see, just the street lamp outside illuminating the glossy pages, I licked my thumb and forefinger, quickly flicking through, constantly alert, looking around, hoping no one was stood behind. Men standing tall in various masculine poses, legs wide apart, sporting 1970s Y fronts and occasional briefs, their bodies on display triggering emotions and feelings normally kept in check. As a young lad this was my first taste of the male physique and despite my lack of real understanding, I was aware that I was different from my peers!
‘Freemans’ offered a glimpse into decadence; designer clothes nestled perfectly with plush furniture and objects that had no use, apart from their ability to look gorgeous placed on a shelf. Even at eight years old, I was making a home, pretending to live in a large sprawling mansion, country cottage or London town house; luxury fixtures and fittings and everything in its place. At the end of each season, I would take Mothers catalogue and spend hours sat upstairs, cutting out my 'favourite things,' sticking them down on paper, creating a montage of my ideal archetypal dwelling. I was a home maker then as I am today and always had a love of delineation, expressing the flamboyant side of my personality, creating a dream to aspire too.
1970s Britain was indeed a colourful place. As a child I discovered much about me, my personality and changing tastes. Through the pages of Mum's shopping directory, reading between the lines, there were links to my future, firmly illustrated at a momentous time; self exploration and an understanding of ones self all part of my childhood agenda, encompassed in a book. ‘Freemans’ offered a sense of belonging and discovery, precipitating my journey into adulthood. A catalogue was just a shop without a high street, but it was more than that: a snapshot in time, an era that no longer exists, a blueprint for the modern age and the commencement of a new chapter. Society in 1979 was a far cry from 2018, seen so vividly in colour, consumerism on display. A little bit of escapism during a period of economic stagnation at the end of a difficult childhood, culminated in the eventual sense of achievement, I finally feel today. Sat here remembering the trading Bible that firmly punctuated my life, has once again manifested memories, that in reality have no price!
Grandad pulled up outside our Maisonette in Nashe Way. I was playing in the back garden, digging holes in the flower beds, burying my most prized possessions. I was a squirrel then, as I still am today, always hiding things, forgetting where I put them, unable to find them again. I was covered from head to toe in mud, my hair matted, large clumps of wet soil dangling from my brow; new burgundy Clark’s sandals scuffed, knees dirty and red after crouching on the wet grubby grass. I could see my Grandparents through the decorative viewing holes, in the brick wall at the rear of the property. It was windy, Nan was having trouble keeping her purple silk head scarf around her newly set hair. She held on tightly to the bow around her neck, her other hand tenaciously grasping hold of her brown leather handbag. Grandad Eric escorted Nan to the front of the flat, his hand gently holding her elbow, as she lowered her head towards the floor, trying to avoid the inclement weather swirling around her!
Mother shouted from the back door, beckoning me to come in and get ready; Nan and Grandad were heading to Portsmouth, for an afternoon of shopping at Portsmouth’s Tricorn Centre. I turned around sheepishly, Mum clocked my filthy appearance; her mouth dropped; a scowl illuminated her aggravated face. Mum lifted her hand up, pointed it towards me, gesticulating her displeasure. ‘Get here now, get inside and clean yourself up, just look at the state of you!’ she protested as I gingerly walked passed her maddened stare!
After a quick clean up, rough brushing of hair, vigorously polished shoes with socks pulled up to my knees, I was suitably attired once more and ready for the afternoon ahead. Mum took my grey duffel coat from the hat peg in the hall, buttoned it tightly towards my chin, lifted my hood up and put a long knitted mantilla around my neck. As Grandad opened the door, a gust of wind nearly blew me off my feet, my hand gripped tightly by Nan, who stopped my fall.
The Tricorn Centre was a striking piece of 1960s architecture, built five years before I was born. There were flats, pubs, restaurants and shops, all served by a large concrete car park above, The brutalist structure wasn’t to everyone’s taste, but as a small child I loved it. The imposing building in the heart of the city was a hive of activity, aromas and sounds like I had never experienced before.
We walked down the stairs towards the shops at the bottom; I could smell seafood as we trod the last step. I lifted my head upwards, taking a deep breath; cod, haddock, crabs and cockles, scents piercing the senses. Market traders, shouting in their familiar Pompey tones, inviting customers to try their wares. Clothes, jewellery, freshly baked bread, displayed neatly on bakers shelves. Fresh cream cakes for Nan and Grandad and a macaroon for me. My eyes focused upwards, towards the stark austerity of the atrium above, the wind still howling around the pillars, as I pulled my coat closer around my shoulders.
After a warm cup of tea and hot sausage roll, a few hours of shopping and a large packet of sweets it was time to leave. I stood at the top of the stair case waving goodbye to the ‘little people’ down below; tired, full to bursting, clutching Nanny’s hand, I gently stepped into Grandad’s new brown Cortina, parked well away from everyone else on the top floor. Curled up on the beige velour upholstery with Nan, I drifted in and out of sleep, opening my eyes occasionally, glimpsing the World rushing by. Nan and Grandad chatted to each other, the car radio on low, the journey went on forever, just the lights dimmed glow. A final peep upwards, the city passing by, homeward bound together, contentment with a sigh!
As I sat in the lounge on a decidedly chilly afternoon, I began drifting off to sleep once again; I had only been up an hour, but after the shenanigans of the night before, staying awake was just too much. Gently I closed my left eye, gradually flickering under the light pouring in through the window. I rubbed my right eye with the back of my hand, took a large yawn and closed both lids. Head falling to the side, I nodded off; just forty winks before Sunday lunch.
Ten minutes passed and a was awoken suddenly, my slumber rudely interrupted; hissing and spitting from the kitchen and a plume of smoke filtered through the serving hatch, as Mother put the par boiled potatoes in steaming hot lard on the stove. Mum’s taters were the best, well second best to my Grandmothers anyway; cooked to perfection, basted frequently, vigorously shaken in the roasting pan and customary seasoned with salt pepper and occasionally a few well chosen herbs, picked fresh from the garden; but never garlic! In the good old days, the dreaded bulb rarely featured in the British diet. These were the years when you could only buy a bottle of olive oil from the chemist and purchasing a container of vegetable oil was considered terribly posh; Vesta curry’s were all the rage and Blue Nun was the wine of choice. I used to think, looking back, that Mum cooked everything in lard, I’m sure she didn’t, but it was the late 1970s and times were very different; austerity was the order of the day!
I always enjoyed school dinners; whenever I feel in need of cheering up or am just having a bad day, I look bad at these lunches with fondness. Cooking a similar meal at home, when it’s pouring with rain outside and the wind is howling down the chimney stack is a memory that makes me feel secure and content with the World. Roast potatoes were very much on the menu then as they are now; my love affair with the humble roastie, began way back when; a love affair that continues today.
I was first in the queue, I could smell the scorching spuds, as the Dinner Ladies brought them out to the front of the canteen. There was something about roast potatoes at School that were so different from any I have ever tasted. To be honest, they were rather soggy, not crisp like Mum used to cook, but the taste was great and I always had second helpings, thirds if I could, which is probably why I was and still am a little on the larger size. I am a product of the seventies and all that decade threw my way. Political correctness didn’t exist and it was OK to be normal, eat humble and not have delusions of grandeur. The lunch menu was a reflection of the values and aspirations of the time; nothing over the top, hearty, filling and basic, ideals we should adopt once again today!
At home, sat at the dining table, the dinner plate was piled high; thick slices of sirloin, three or four different vegetables, pigs in blankets, home made Yorkshire puddings and piping hot gravy made with the meat juices from the joint slowly cooked in the oven. To the side, each of us had a plate of bread and butter; proper butter, not that margarine stuff; natural wholesome unprocessed. Eating with gusto, I would always make a roast dinner sandwich, filled to bursting with goodies from my plate; always left to last, washed down with a cheeky glass of wine, only allowed on a Sunday afternoon!
Today my love affair with the humble roast potato still exists, cooking them as often as I can. Today I will cook them with garlic, balsamic vinegar and even Marmite. Unlike the past I will only use olive oil or beef dripping at Christmas, as a one off treat; with high blood pressure and cholesterol, lard is most certainly a no no. Suddenly the World became more health conscious and my spuds adapted to mark the times in which we now live. The basic recipe remains the same, the taste as good as ever and the memories persist, always transporting me back to family occasions, laughter around the table and stories of decades gone by!
Assembly and prayers seemed to drag that day, our headmistress had more to say than usual. Sitting in rows along the length of the hall we sang the Lords Prayer, finally filing outside towards our classes and the beginning of the school day. It was nearly Christmas; always a time for celebration; as part of the schools annual festivities, our class had an appointment with God. We were due to go on a school trip to our local church, St Columba; a chat with the vicar and religious instruction was on the cards and I for one was looking forward to the journey ahead. In the 1970s, religion and church attendances were on the decline; an excursion to a Christian house of worship, would most certainly not be on the cards today. As a child I had always felt spiritual in some way, eulogising Christmas and Easter with gusto, even saying prayers before I went to bed, it was yet another difference between my peers and I; something that made me different and a part of my personality I still haven’t lost today.
Walking hand in hand we left the school, travelling along Hillson Drive towards the Church at the end of the road. Compared to children today, we were well behaved, listened eagerly to our teachers and never spoke until we were spoken to; a testament to the times we grew up in, a mark of respect unheard of in 2018. St Columba was large and imposing, a modern building built during the housing boom of the 1960s, The structure was surrounded by a large Council estate, well maintained with residents taking great pride in their homes, very different to the extensive developments we are used to in the 21st century. This is where I was Christened, celebrated Weddings, harvest festivals and sang Christmas Carols; it was an edifice I was very familiar with; friends and family living in and around the grounds in which it sat.
Walking inside the Church, I was amazed by the sheer size of the hall, eagerly looking around in every conceivable direction, trying to take in everything before me. Standing, still grabbing on to the back of the last row of pews, holding on for dear life, out of fear or incredulity, I contemplated this vast space, gazing straight ahead towards the alter; the letters IHS stood out, a monogram for Jesus Christ. The large white candles, the font, Bibles, stacked neatly on each chair and as I moved my head upwards, the open, monumental dark wooden ceiling, illuminated by spotlights on either side of the auditorium. This was a wondrous site for a young lad, unable to contain his excitement at this oar inspiring vision; wide eyed I continued to walk up the isle behind my class mates, turning towards the vestry beyond, briefly looking back towards the large wooden doors; it was a magical site, just as it was intended to be.
We all stood huddled in a group, facing the vicar as he gave a talk about the Church and St Columba. It was then he pointed to me, and asked if I would come to a large cupboard at the back of the small room. Not knowing what to say or do, I did as I was told, everyone turning their heads, following me as I walked across the parquet floor. He opened the door, revealing a row of vestments inside; robes, religious attire and cassocks, all neatly pressed, covered in plastic. Some were brightly coloured, embellished in gold, beautifully embroidered ruffs for the choir and a musty smelling cloak, looking as though it had seen better days. The vicar asked if I wouldn’t mind putting on one of the outfits to show the rest of the class, which I duty did; turning red in the face, looking down towards the floor, I stood, rather embarrassed as our mentor described the clothes I was wearing. I was a person who liked to blend into the background not wanting to stand on show; for me this was tantamount to hell, hardly religious.
Approaching school, after our religious outing, I was philosophical about my excursion to the Church. Back then I believed in God and for the brief stroll back to class I even thought about becoming a priest. My life took a very different path, one could hardly call me a saint, but I will always remember that day with fondness, when we went to meet God in his house, in the church at the end of the street.
Excitement had been building for days; sat in front of the television set, watching the early morning news, I was mesmerized, watching in ore at the people camped out along the wedding procession route. Under tarpaulin, make shift tents, sat in deck chairs, decorated in red, white and blue, they were all waving their union flags, sporting patriotic clothes, draped in flags; a sea of colour, up and down The Mall. Through the streets of London, in front of Buckingham Palace, every available spot was taken as dawn broke over the capital. The cameras were there, Interviewing the dedicated, early arrivals and anyone with a connection to the days proceedings! This was the day The Prince of Wales married Lady Diana Spencer and I like most of the country was waiting with anticipation, happy that our future King had found his bride; this wouldn’t be an experience I would ever forget; a Royalist then as I most certainly am now!
Today was a Bank Holiday, the whole country was able to take part in the Royal Wedding; I was thrilled at the prospect of watching the biggest national event since the Silver Jubilee in 1977. Not everyone was as happy as I, there were those who had no interest in the day and would rather be elsewhere, my Father was one such person.
Dad came down the stairs, he was in a grumpy mood, annoyed at the impending Marriage. As a ten year old boy, I had little concept of the reasons for his irritation, believing it was just a ‘Dad thing.’ I remember my Father talking about wasting tax payers money and the rumblings of republicanism under his breath, as he retorted his customary socialist rant. Dad was left wing in every sense of the word, a point of view that has never changed over the years. As Mother and I sat down in front of the box, Dad paced the room, still moaning about the costs involved in such a frivolous occasion. I however was more than happy, glued to the set.
‘I’m going out!’ said Dad, ‘I’m taking Kevin out for a game of football in the park, where I don’t have to watch this rubbish,’ he continued. I remember thinking to myself, how the park would be full of Fathers, kicking football’s around with their sons, equally miffed about the events running across every TV network. Football was never my thing anyway and I was just happy they were going out, leaving Mother and I at home, enjoying the day. Shortly afterwards, they were gone, with a slam of the front door, cursing the day ahead.
The carriage arrived at the entrance to Westminster Abbey, Princess Diana, gracefully stepped out, helped by her Father, the Earl Spencer. As she walked forwards, alighting the carriage, the train on her dress recoiled behind her. Like a meandering river, it stretched for what seemed like miles, light dancing off the shimmering white silk in the bright glow of the day; she looked radiant, her all too familiar smile beamed under her veil; sparkling tiara on top of her head, twinkling as she advanced up the aisle. I sat there open mouthed, taken aback by the majesty of Monarchy, the pomp and circumstance, the emotion stirring music and a vision of history in the making. This was the day I truly felt a bond with our Royal Family and realised just how important they were in all our daily lives. I felt proud to be British, content at my place in the World.
When Dad got in from the park, I continued to watch the reruns, highlights and repeats on my little black and white portable TV, lying on my bed upstairs. Again and again, I relived the wonderment of the day, cementing my growing adoration of an institution a thousand years old. Princess Diana was a powerful figure throughout my life, someone I was lucky enough to meet much later. Her Wedding was an important milestone for me, because I discovered who I really was, what made me tick and most importantly my connection to the Country I was born in, my home, wherever I am living, here or abroad. The Royal Wedding of 1981 gave all of us a brief escape from the austerity measures at the time. With unemployment high and discontent growing, this was a day to escape and enjoy an occasion that encompassed us all; this was a day that defined an era, this was a celebration that would galvanise a nation.
I was about five or six years old when I realised Mum wasn’t like everyone else. She was a type I Diabetic and had been so since her early childhood. The story was, she was sat toasting crumpets on the fire in my Grandmothers parlour, when flames jumped out of the grate in front of her face, sending my Mother into a state of shock; from that moment on Mum became diabetic. Like most family stories, I really couldn’t tell you if it was true or not; rather like urban myths, they take hold and become the accepted story of how something happened. The reality of my Mum’s situation was really about her good fortune, being born when she was. She was one of the first people to be given insulin, without which she wouldn’t be here today. As Mum copes with the effects of long term diabetes, I am reminded of a childhood, spent with a lady who fought hard to keep herself strong in the face of illness and the challenges around monitoring her condition.
It was Monday morning, a school day, approaching 7 am. Mum was calling from the bottom of the stairs, trying to get me up for another day. I was never good at waking early at the best of times, let alone at the beginning of the week. Having to go to a school that I hated; suffering yet more bullying, that by now had become commonplace, was a part of my youth, I would rather forget. Laying in bed, I sighed, stretched my arms into life and reluctantly fell out of bed, slowly walking towards the bathroom!
I had had a bath the night before; Sunday was always bath day! After a quick strip wash at the sink I cleaned my teeth and brushed my mass of 70s hair, a huge birds nest on top of my head that made me look fatter than I already was; yes I was a fat kid; yet another reason to get bullied. At nine years old, I had already become impervious to the actions of others, staying very much away from the fray, keeping myself to myself, ignoring the haters. I stamped down the stairs, turned right at the bottom and headed into the kitchen.
The kitchen was a hive of activity. Mother was busy cooking breakfast for my brother and I, as well as Dad, who was due home from his night shift. She had already been up since 6 am and was due to work at the local Co-op after everyone was fed and watered ‘Sit down at the table you two, breakfast wont be long!’ she exclaimed, a little more distracted than usual. Mum hadn’t had her morning injection yet, something she had to do three times a day, before eating and was feeling a little queasy. At the time, we didn’t really know what was going on with her health, just that she had to inject herself each day, a process I never witnessed fully, turning my head away, not wanting to see the needle pierce the skin.
With breakfast on the table and Dad’s food left simmering on the stove, Mum finally sat down. She looked tired as she lent back on the kitchen chair. From her bag she took out her hypodermic needle and reached over towards the fridge, where her insulin was stored, producing a small vile of the clear liquid, that kept her alive. She pierced the rubber top of the bottle with the needle, pulling back the head of the syringe, allowing the liquid to pour inside, finally flicking the glass tube with her fingers, removing the air bubbles inside. ‘Turn away if you want to, I know how much you hate it,’ Mum said gently, smiling, eye brow raised; we both looked towards the wall.
Peeping behind my hand, I managed to see Mum lift the bottom of her blouse, exposing a her stomach. She had been injecting for so many years that this was the only place she could now use to insert the needle. ‘All done, you can look now,’ Mum announced, as she placed the syringe into her bag away from our tiny inquisitive hands.
This was a typical morning, a procedure I witnessed throughout my childhood. Mum never had it easy, but always coped remarkably well; she never complained and just accepted her lot. Spending a lifetime on insulin has taken its toll, Mum isn’t as well as she used to be, wheelchair bound and suffering from a double leg amputation. She remains stoical in the face of adversity, not wanting to accept help from others. The time is coming however, when the children at the breakfast table, will have to take on the responsibility that Mother afforded to us.
It was Wednesday afternoon, not my most favourite day of the week, Wednesdays were swimming days and in truth it was the last thing I wanted to do. I had tried playing hooky before and been caught out; hauled up in front of the class I was given a good dressing down and told to ‘buck my ideas up’ if I wanted to complete the compulsory course of lessons, designed to make us water aware, submerging undignified in a pool of filthy water, used by everyone else and all the germs that bred in it. I wasn’t fond of Wednesdays at all, in all respects, not just the swimming but the whole damn process.
As a teenager I was an early developer and objected strongly to spending time in changing rooms and showers with those I went to school with. I mean, who actually thought it was a great idea, to throw a group of adolescent boys together, during puberty, showering together in front of a PE Teacher; it really wasn’t for me! At thirteen years old, I was well aware of my sexuality, the signs were always there. If I was sure of who I was, then others were aware too. Once over the embarrassment of changing in front of ones peers, it was time to begin the lessons.
It was cold, as I tiptoed out of the locker rooms and into the swimming arena. The pool was alive with the screams of children. In the distance I heard the sound of a whistle being blown, by a lifeguard perched at the far end of the pool. It was time for the first group of kids to leave and us to begin our lessons.
Situated at the shallow end, were floats, arm bands and other strange looking contraptions, designed to keep us afloat, as we all strived for the same thing, learning to swim. Most of us were well versed in the procedures employed by Mrs Hanson, a formidable looking lady, dark permed hair and what I can only describe as craggy features, heavily wrinkled face, sporting an almost burnt orange tan. Dressed in blue tracksuit bottoms and a white T shirt, she was tall, thin and a force to be reckoned with; she scared the living daylights out of me. Her approach to teaching can only be described as ‘sink or swim,’ her lack of empathy was typical of the time. There were no allowances for failure; you did as you were told, or else.
There was just me at the shallow end, everyone else had already migrated to the deep side of the pool. For the life of me, I just couldn’t swim, it really wasn’t in me and with a coach like Mrs Hanson, it was highly unlikely to happen anytime soon. I stood in the middle, still holding onto the side with my right hand, when Mrs H, told me to let go of the edge and slowly swim towards her hands, stretched out before me. I hesitated, panicked and shook my head in protest. She asked again, firmly, with a scowl on her face. After thinking for what seemed like an age, I threw myself forwards and swam towards her hands.
I was nearly there and could almost feel the end of her nails. Everything was a blur, my eyes were soaked in water, my mouth and nose also, I could barely breath; flapping my hands with terror, I really thought I would make it. Then she took her hands away, quickly without warning; I sunk like a brick. Shouting for help I gasped for air, trying to get to the surface, finally lifted out by the lifeguard, who placed me at the side of the pool. Coughing, spluttering with my heart pounding, I finally came back to life; battered, bruised with Loss of dignity and pride, I gingerly left the pool, never to return again.
In the end I was awarded a certificate like everyone else, not for the metres I had swam but for endeavour, for trying hard; a piece of paper, that I still have to this very day, a momento of a time I would rather forget. That final lesson was so traumatic for me, that I never learnt to swim again. I am content enough to realise I tried my best, leaving a mark on my life that I can write about today!
47 year old Author, Columnist and Blogger.