Saturday 4 January 2014

Brixham and the Perfect 1950's Childhood

Brixham is a traditional fishing village in Torbay. South Devon and 40 years ago was fairly unspoilt and the perfect place to spend one's schools holiday.

The first time I saw Brixham was in at Easter in 1954. My two maiden aunts Flo and Jo Thorpe had bought a small  gift shop which they named Variety Fayre in Middle Street, Brixham. It was love at first sight.  Originally the shop had been a typical Fisherman's cottage hewn out of the rock with a brick frontage, which was actually falling down and inside was a rickety staircase which led to three floors.

It was the place itself that I fell in love with. It was so different from the semi detached streets of Stanmore. It was wild and romantic.

Across the road was the William of Orange Pub which date back to the 17th Century and in which King William of Orange spent his first night on  English shore in 1688. A statue of the King, with the usual seagull on his head, graced the harbour. Middle Street had just enough room for one car and and one could almost touch the butcher's. When it rained the water ran down the street. This historic building was unceremoniously pulled down in favour of a road to ease the traffic flow. It took a season and cost a fortune and on the first day of the road opening cars parked on it this narrowing the road again. It was the most expensive car park ever and took years to receive a no parking zone. What a cultural crime.

Brixham in those days was a working harbour with the daily fish market and the smell of fish a few yards away. It was fun to watch the fish being hauled ashore and hear the auctioneer's prattle.  The harbour was full of trawlers and sea gulls. Brixham seagulls are garrulous and noisy.

The little town was built layer upon layer into the cliff. The church had the only clarion of bells in England that played a tune. "Abide with Me" was struck out at 6 pm every night to honour the fact that this most famous of hymns was written by the local vicar who decided to commit suicide and jump off the local cliff at Berry Head on to see the sunset and sit down and write Abide with Me instead. This hymn was a favourite of George VI who had it played at the Cup Final at Wembley where my grandfather was chief accountant so I suppose it would be a suitable choice for my funeral if I have one. My family do not do funerals.

It was heaven and in this heaven I spent every Easter and summer holiday until well into my teens usually with my cousins Gillian and occasionally John and my mother. We all adored it. It was like a living Swallows and Amazons, as children had more freedom in those days and we spent days messing about in boats, swimming and for me riding. Primrosing was another delight, long walks across the cliffs with poles to tie bunches of primroses on. We even found a few wild violets.

What I adored was the fact the grass went right down to the beach not the miles of concrete esplanade that I was used to see.

I have not been back in 40 years and in truth Brixham does not look so different today in the postcards but I suspect it has been prettified. This started very soon after my aunts arrived. I can see from the maps that vast areas of rustic farmland have been covered in concrete and the primrose and violet paths have gone but I still love it. Ah the dreams of youth!

PS:  Recently I watched Restoration Man, a TV programme that featured  the restoration of a church in Brixham which I found fascinating. There seemed to be parts of Brixham that I did not recognise, in fact a lot of Brixham that I did not recognise. A quick tour on Google Earth soon filled me in. In my day 1954 to 1970 Birixham did not look like an apology for an Italian fishing village with all those pink and blue houses. In my day Brixham was grey and working class and I loved it like that. Now it is a bit precious.

Also a coastal path has been added which I think looks rather nice. The restored church looks wonderful but I am not sure the old fishermen would have approved.

Fishcombe Cove - a favourite swimming spot.

Friday 3 January 2014

Auntie Jo'sThamesway Theatre

Dance Tales Story Ballets - The Little Match Girl
I think my love of theatre can be attributed to my beautifully, brilliant and eccentric Auntie Jo who played the piano, taught dancing to young ladies, was a superb secretary and manager and loved the theatre.

Auntie Jo had a theatre of her own, a toy theatre which had lights and a curtain. She would produce a pantomime for the family at Christmas. Rehearsals were held in secret so that we children had no idea of what was in store and then after the Christmas feast was cleared up the huge dining room would be turned into a theatre.

It was magic. Christmas at Thamesway was unforgettable and for me every Christmas is judged on this standard. So far only one has been as good.

Local children were invited to this performance and this is how I met Pam Vincent/Burke who's mother and father ran the cafe down the road. Pam and I loved it and I think this is what made us both decide to go on the stage. This was the beginning of a lifelong friendship and Pam has become my sort of sister. She too can verify that this performance was magic and made the rather bleak postwar Christmas truly one out of the box.

Jack in the Beanstalk,1946 was the most memorable pantomime and the grown up's worked so hard to make it a proper grown up affair. We all loved Jack hiding in the fireplace and we screamed at the Giant who because he was paper on a stick weighted with a penny was enormous. We all rushed to the theatre when the Giant fell down the beanstalk to his death!

Daddy took it home  to Stanmore and made a few additions. He rewired the footlights and added a proscenium arch. Mummy made a new curtain. 

Aunty Jo went on to produce The Coronation and I had to spend hours cutting out the Royal Procession. We did it in 1953. Aunty Jo had the night before at the Palace with Princess Margaret dressed in green tulle and sequins, smoking and playing the piano. Aunty Jo made my cousin Gillian and I rehearse for days to get it quite right. It was very impressive.

Later I owned the theatre and I produced Red Riding Hood. It was my first production and it took me a whole year, to make the puppets and paint the scenery. I used it in Dance Tales, in The Little Matchgirl, and the children in the studio still loved it.

The theatre unused and unloved lives in my attic. I have not the heart to throw it away. Nobody wants a toy theatre in 2014 but it is my Rosebud.

Wednesday 1 January 2014

Canons Park Tube Station The Least Used Tube Station

The trouble with a blog is finding interesting things to write in it. Other people's lives can be so boring and so can one's own life. Mine was particularly boring and Canons Park Tube Station has taken up hours and hours of my youth.

I came across this photo of Canons Park Tube Station in Wikipedia. It actually has its own Wiki page! I was astonished at anywhere so uninteresting and ugly could be worth a mention in an Encyclopedia. I was wrong.

Canons Park Tube Station was about three quarters of a mile from my semi detached  house in Stanmore where I lived from the age of four to 21. The only way to get anywhere was to either walk or get the bus to this tube station. The  daily decision of whether to walk the distance or wait for the 18 bus which seldom if ever came and when it did was usually full up was source of annoyance for 16 years.

I have spent hours of my life waiting for the bus or walking to this station. In the 1950's the fog was so bad I could hardly see my hand in front of my face and I had to count to curbstones to find my way home. I had to do this in the rain and the snow and even in fine weather I hated it.

My father who had a van and later a car never once gave me a lift in all those years. I had to cart all my heavy school books and later ballet paraphernalia each day. Even when Mummy and I went to Brixham for our holidays Daddy never gave us a lift with cases and later dog. On this occasion we waited for the 18 bus. Even when I was performing Daddy refused to help and I had to leave at 6.30 am and do the walk before the TV recording of  'The Turn of the Screw' which was not the easiest thing to sing for a 16 year old. I had to get the train back after at around 11 pm and do the walk. In fact even after the Royal Gala at Covent Garden the train ride back at 11 pm took the gilt of the ginger bread and bought one down to earth. Merle Park was on the train too with me plus bouquet. 

The 18 Bus is itself worth a blog. It never came! Once  waited for two hours for one and missed the first Act of 'Ondine' at Covent Garden for which I shall never forgive it. Its route went from Wembley Stadium through Harrow to Edgware Station.

Canons Park Station itself must be the ugliest station on the whole tube. It is, so Wiki says, the least used. It is just a bridge and two windy cold platforms which are high up and battered by the elements. Freezing sleet and snow in winter and  rain in summer.

A waiting room you may ask? Yes there was one but only held about ten people and in the morning one had to be right at the front of the platform to get a seat on the train as it was twenty minutes to Baker Street if you did not change to the fast train at Wembley Park. Again decisions should one change to the fast train and stand to Baker Street, sometimes the fast train sat in a tunnel for hours or sit and stop at every station and again be stuck in a tunnel.

The hours I have stood waiting on that platform must add up to months if not years of my life. Outside the rush hour one just never knew if a train would appear. There was nothing to do but wait.

My journey there and back during my London years must have taken up about two hours of every day. During my convent school days the school bus had a pick up point so I past it every weekday.

The last memory of Canon's Park is waiting at the 18 bus stop on the way home in the pouring rain as if I remember there was no bus shelter. The queues were long as there was the 114 that also stopped there. Sometimes I would walk the mile home as the chances of getting on a bus were slim and it was a long walk past dreary semi detached houses.

I vowed as soon as I could I should escape from the bleakness of the landscape. For me it had not one redeeming feature perhaps only the gasometers nestled in the elms trees was the only thing of beauty and I kid you not.

Now when I look out on the beautiful Auckland Harbour which I do daily I am so grateful that I never have to see Canons Park Station again because I doubt if I could ever afford a house in that area even if I wanted to.

Honey & Tippy Thorpe's School in Belguim

Honey & Tippy Thorpe Belgium 1920s

How the middle upper classes educated their daughters in 1920s/1930s

Pop and Ma Thorpe had four beautiful daughters. The first two Auntie Flo and Auntie Jo were born in England in Manchester in the early 1900's then there was a big gap of 6 years before Auntie Tippy( Eileen) was born in Ceylon in 1911.  My mother Honey (Agnes) Thorpe was born in Datchet near Windsor in 1915.

My grandparents must have wanted a son but sadly they had four daughters. What to do with them? Boys would have gone to Public school and Oxford but girls?  Girls education was non existent at that time so the two elder girls were sent a boarding school in Herne Bay and later a rather classy establishment in Chiswick. They remained in England.

The fate of the younger two was not so happy as they got shipped off to a convent in Liege in Belgium. My grandparents socially arisen from the slums of Manchester into the Upper Middle Classes copied what other Middle Class families did and dumped their girl children and in the case of my mother and her sister for years in boarding schools far from home. My mother hardly went home in 11 years! At the age of six my mother and her 9 year old sister travelled across the English Channel to Belgium never to return until they were grown up. In the case of my mother 16. Her mother visited them occasionally and once or twice they went home for Xmas but that was it.

Now this was not all doom and gloom. My mother seemed to enjoy it. My grandmother was a bit of an acid drop so the nuns must have seemed kinder and nicer and indeed both sisters opted to stay in Belgium for Xmas. Says something about granny I think.

Both girls learned to speak perfect French. They were educated in French and my mother learned all her secretarial skills in French. She had very high speeds as her certificates prove. The big problem was that she did not learn English. She was totally uneducated in English and I discovered when I was 45 that she could hardly read in English. The Daily Mail was about her limit although we did change to the Telegraph when I insisted. Reading the world's masterpieces was beyond her.

They were taught religion naturally, and needlework. Belgium young ladies were trained to become lace makers. Brussels Lace to be exact. This is the finest of lace and is a mixture of torchon lace and embroidery. Mother's leaving certificate was a magnificent embroidered table cloth which I use as a bedspread. If she had stayed in Belgium she would have gone to a school in Brussels to be taught this difficult craft.

The problem is that my mother was brilliant academically. She should have gone to Oxford. When it came to numbers her accountancy skills were exceptional. Like her accountant father mother could run up a column of £.s.d. in one go. She did the Family Books all her life to the last farthing.

Sex education was sadly lacking too. On one of the few occasions the two sisters did return to UK Auntie Tippy had her first period on the ferry across the channel. Nobody had informed them that this was natural. My mother thought Auntie Tip was dying in the loo! They made the journey on the boat alone but were met at the other end.

I don't think my mother wanted to return to England. She was totally unprepared for life in London socially and educationally. Life in a big city must have been a shock.