Friday 20 September 2013

Bathrooms and magic fires -the power of advertising. A little piece of domestic history.

Funny things 1990s bathrooms.  Often they were the room in the house which looked least like a room you would go into to become clean.  They were often damp, slightly chilly places with a touch of mould in the corners.  Ours was no exception.  It was, however a luxurious palace compared to our first bathroom.

We rented a flat when we were first married. It was unfurnished, without anything at all in it except a gas poker to light the open fire.  We bought the kitchen goods from a friend's granny for £5 - a lovely twin tub washing machine, a three ring cooker and a beautiful fridge.  The fridge was very old even then, but it still worked as long as we turned it upside down now and again.   It was a pretty green colour inside.  I have always liked the 1930s look!
My lovely fridge!

Our bathroom stove
The bathroom was a fairly typical one for its day - dank, unheated and dismal.  The single-glazed metal-framed windows had been painted so often that they no longer kept out the wind.  The bath was made of cast iron which was chipped and discoloured.  The bath surround was wooden, with holes filled with Polyfilla painted over in a fetching shade of blue.  Our only source of heat was a paraffin stove which my grandmother had given us,
so on cold days the toilet would freeze and the windows would have a sheet of ice inside.  Jim and I used to argue heatedly (how ironic) about whose turn it was to go and light the stove in the morning.

Granny's stove
My granny kept her bathroom warm with an even older stove rather like this - only hers was a cream colour and beautifully clean.  One day, getting out of the bath, she bumped it with her bottom, which remained prettily patterned to the end of her days.  These stoves got very hot on top.  I think you were supposed to boil a kettle on them...

Well well!  I can't imagine any of my kids wanting to start out with hand-me-down paraffin heaters,  times have changed for the better I think - but enough of ancient reminiscences.  Back to the future!

British Coal had an advert in the mid 1980s which showed  toys getting out of the toy box in the night and sitting round the fire.  The advert was still in use when Sam was a child.  When he saw it he was agog to see if his toys would do the same when we had a fire.  We often had one - our house was draughty and wet under the floor. I used to find slug trails on the carpet, and, on one memorable occasion in the dead of night, I trod on a live slug.  Eeugh!  It took me days to get the slime from between my toes.

The central heating helped a lot, but a real fire in the grate just can't be beaten for comfort and toastiness.  One night we succumbed to the bright idea (if such a thing is possible) of moving the toys to sit in a semicircle round the fire.  Dinosaurs and trucks sat side by side with George's sword and Captain Hook puppet.  Sooty and Sweep joined in as well. We went to town on it.  It was a design classic.

When Sam came down the next morning he couldn't believe his eyes.  "My dinosaurs have been magic in the night!  The swords have been fighting on their own!"  George's eyes were out on stalks too.  After this lapse in judgement we were forced to arrange the toys every time we had a fire for years.  We used to argue about whose turn it was to do that as well!

Thursday 19 September 2013

The Tooth Fairy, Playbus and the violin.

Every child used to get sixpence when their tooth fell out.  As sixpence is now virtually worthless at two and a half pence, or 4 US cents, most children seem to get about £1($1.60ish)  My kids used to get 20 pence but that is a while ago.  I still feel as if a 20p coin has a sort of similarity in mood to the old sixpence.  Anyway, my children got really excited when they had a tooth event, so like Father Christmas, the Tooth Fairy was a welcome visitor.  We used to wrap the tooth in tissue and secrete it under the pillow, where - lo and behold - in the morning would be a 20p coin!  Many's the time I have risen in the dead of night, having forgotten to make the exchange, and wrested the damp tissue from the child's resisting grasp.  Often I needed a torch to find the tooth which had escaped into the bed on its own.  We tooth fairies have a hard life.

A few years ago, I found mine and my sister's teeth at Mum's house when I was mooching about.  Following this slightly horrific experience, I came home and disposed of my children's baby teeth straight away.  Sometimes sentimental value can be taken too far!

Show and tell at school.  I don't know if they still have it,  but I found it quite a trial.  A sort of parental competitiveness comes over you to provide something that will be just right, in that it will give your child status with his classmates, whilst giving you status with the teacher.

I know this is silly, but I also know that we all do this sort of thing.  It's like leaving the most cool book open on the table when you have guests.  "Dostoyevsky?" you say dismissively, "Yes I fancied a lighter book.  I found Schopenhauer a little depressing." No one is fooled.

On this day I considered sending the cat (good for Sam, bad for the teacher), something mouldy (great for Sam disgusting for the teacher) or a cuddly toy (a bit boring, but a safe bet for the teacher).  We went with a cuddly toy.  There is such a thing as trying too hard.

Playbus was a lovely BBC children's show.  The Dot Stop was George's favourite.  He was fascinated by the lady called Dot, who played the violin.  For his second birthday I dressed a Barbie in the white suit with coloured spots which Dot wore on Playbus and he had it as his present.  He was beside himself with joy.  (He was such a cheap date!) When he started school and was offered the chance to learn a musical instrument it was the violin straight away.  He learned the viola, as his teacher assured me it was less shrill and unpleasant to listen to in the early stages.  This turned out to be very lucky as he grew to be far too big to play the violin.

When he went anywhere he would find two sticks to pretend to play the violin with.  He was obsessed.  Now he can play reasonably well, Christmas carols and so on, even playing in the church band for a while.  On the whole I think the years of 'shrill and unpleasant' practise were worth it!

Here is one of my favourite pictures of George as a child is playing the violin with two spades on the beach.  I feel proud that I could find it when I looked in my photo filing!  So cute!

George on Woolacombe beach North Devon

Tuesday 17 September 2013

Strawberry Dragons - first contact

One day after school, Mum took  the children to the allotment.  She wanted to weed the carrots before they got too big.  She asked the children to pick some strawberries for tea.  It was a very hot afternoon and the children soon got tired of picking strawberries and went to the blackcurrant bushes to sit in the shade.

Sam was lying on his back dreamily watching clouds pass overhead. George was playing with two sticks for a violin.  Clara was watching ants and woodlice as usual.

Suddenly Sam flapped his hand.  'That was a big bee,' he remarked.

'Well don't flap at it,' said Clara, who loved insects, 'it will sting you.  It won't do any harm if you leave it alone.'

'Well you're a fine one to talk...'  began Sam when something large and red flew up and landed squarely on his nose.

'Don't move Sam,' breathed Clara.  Sam didn't answer.  He was afraid that if he opened his mouth the thing would fall in.  Clara moved cautiously closer.  'It isn't a bee,' she said consideringly, it's a kind of a strawberry, but it's got wings.  I've never seen one before.'

George looked up from his symphony.  'Ooh!  What is that?'  he exclaimed.

Clara was very close indeed by now.  She looked up blankly.  'He says he's the king of the Strawberry Dragons and he wants to know why we are causing an earthquake.'

A few minutes later the three children were sitting attentively in front of the blackcurrant bush where the King had perched.  They had to strain to hear him as he was small and his voice was difficult to pick out above the birds and insects humming all around.

'I can't be doing with this!' he was saying, you will just have to come to the Hall.  Follow me!'

Obediently, the children followed him as he flew slowly towards the strawberry patch.  As they got closer they noticed they were getting smaller, like Alice, and found themselves walking behind a suddenly person-sized Strawberry Dragon, as he waddled into an arched gateway hidden under a leaf.

To be continued...

Saturday 14 September 2013

Puzzles and the park

When George came home from playgroup, (or praygroot as he called it)  we would have lunch then games.  He loved watching puzzles come together.  He was particularly fond of an old fashioned puzzle of mice having tea in little frocks.  I think it was one of mine when I was small.

We had to do it over and over again, and after a while he would agree to try and put a piece in.  He was always excited if he could do it, but cried bitter tears of frustration when it was too hard.  He could see quite well where the piece should go but his dyspraxia made it really hard for him to place it accurately.  "I can't" was always countered by me saying "yes you can!" so eventually that was what he said - "I can't, yes I can".

I was always behind with the washing and ironing.  I think it is a normal state to be in when you have kids.  Our lovely friend Ian had did some plumbing for us and moved the boiler out of the airing cupboard into the kitchen.  It was great because we could stack the washing machine and dryer in the airing cupboard instead of having them in the tiny galley kitchen.  Even better, because I could close the door, there was no chance of one of the kids putting the cat in for a bath!

I am ironing in the conservatory in the picture.  It was a wonderful room, north facing, so light but not hot, and full of flowers.  It used to be a dank and dark outside area as was common with Victorian terraces.  It contained a double concrete coal bunker (with resident massive spiders) and a manhole for the shared drain.  Moss and snails grew there in abundance.  We got our next door neighbours' agreement and roofed and fronted the area from their bathroom wall to ours with glass.  Their house was warmer and ours was transformed.  A win win situation no less!

George loved to move around.  Especially bouncing. Despite regular bumps and bruises he adored going to the park which was luckily only a few minutes walk from our house. He found it exciting although he was an expert at falling off or out of any playground equipment.  It didn't matter that it had been designed by experts to be almost totally safe for his age group.  He didn't know that, so he fell out of it anyway in inventive and improbable ways.

He got stuck in this one.  Upside down.  I believe he was trying to get in on his own.  He also managed to roll down the slide, even though it was a curly one. I still cannot understand how.  I felt I had to go down the slide with him a few times every visit to show him how it should be done.  (That was my excuse anyway.  I would still do it if I could find a child to go with).

Like I said, being a parent of small children is a license to have fun in a way which adults normally can't .  I really miss being able to be silly without anyone giving me a strange look, or edging away.

Tuesday 10 September 2013

Nursery teas again - a great institution

When the kids were little I earned money by any number of jobs that could be slotted in while they were at nursery or school.  I had two and a half hours so I went and worked for my sister who had a whizzy and well paid job which took all her time.  I was a dab hand at decorating (you wouldn't think so to look at the spacing on those bricks!) so I carried on with her lounge.  I seem to remember being very sticky afterwards.

I also cleaned houses,  and took in ironing for a business man.  He was not a good client.  He wore the best quality heavy linen/cotton shirts, up to 20 a week. Sadly he tumble dried them to such an extent that I had a lot of trouble opening them out from their stiffly crumpled state ready to iron.  In the end I used to run them through the washing machine again and iron them damp.  At 50p or 78 US cents a shirt, he wasn't grateful enough, so I was secretly rather glad when he told me that he couldn't afford me any more!  The best money maker was cleaning as I charged a hefty £8 an hour (the average was about £6).  I used to take the baby with me and
                                                                          arrive early to put up the playpen.  I could earn £16 for two and a half hours out of the house, which was quite good in 1992.  Twenty or so years on  I can't imagine working that hard physically for so little reward.  What it is to be young and springy! But it gave me some pocket money for things like new clothes and presents which gave me back a feeling of independence.  I found it hard to be reliant totally on Jim and felt I shouldn't spend any money on myself.  He couldn't understand that I felt it wasn't my money, he was fine with me spending it.  I don't think I would have such a problem with it now.  Isn't hindsight a wonderful thing?

George's paintings were always very wet, and totally indescribable, even by George.  "It's a sort of a thing you get in one of those caves" he would say mysteriously.  Sometimes it would be of Mummy,  or a spider, but the painting was always the same.  I put them up and admired them anyway.  He was artistic in his little soul.

He still is, but now he does it by pressing keys on a computer and constructing huge complicated cities in Minecraft.  He is also writing a book so I guess that the encouragement to be creative paid off in the end.

My mum knitted that jumper. It was green chenille with orange boucle leaves.  It had a tendency to sag, so it was a lot shorter when I first got it. I thought I looked amazing in it with the green leggings to match.  I really should have known better, after all I lived through the 70s!

I know for a fact the dining room was never that tidy.  I have also missed off the crusts of weetabix on the yellow booster seat.

Marmite is one of those things that you either love or hate.  George and Sam loved it.  Sam still has crumpets with Marmite and honey when he feels he needs comfort food.  And yes I do mean together!

Everyone has their favourite nursery food I think.  I used to love Heinz baby dinner.  I have no idea what it was really called but I used to ask for it if I had been ill as my first proper food.  If I close my eyes I can still taste it, and the soft, white, thickly buttered bread we had with it.  I would happily eat it even now, but it is long gone.

I have just asked the grown up "boys" what they remember as the best nursery food, George says weetabix would be his, but it makes him ill nowadays, so he can't have it. After a short but intense discussion that results in a quick snack, they say unanimously sausages and pasta.  They do agree that Marmite and honey crumpets is a close second, so I wasn't too far out.

Monday 2 September 2013

Fur cuffs and swords

It was a lovely kind sort of school.  They were really good to Sam, and helpful when it came to getting him a statement of special needs.  I had no idea there was any need for this as he seemed so fantastic after his heart operation. But no.

One day his teacher came out and found me after school.   "Sam can't skip", she confided.  I looked at her blankly.  "He can't hop either" she said, "Or turn a roly poly, or run."
"Should he be able to?" I asked surprised, (I thought that walking to school was pretty amazing).
"Come to PE tomorrow" she said, giving me a look which I can only describe as pitying.

Well I was never so shocked!  The other kids were like little rockets zooming around, falling over and then getting up and carrying on running, etc etc  "Everybody hop like a bunny", called the teacher.  They all hopped like a bunny.  Sam flapped his arms up and down and put his top teeth out.  "Now skip like little lambs"  she instructed.  The children dutifully skipped like little lambs.  Sam wobbled vaguely, looking at the others sorrowfully, then, with some trouble he got onto his hands and knees and pretended to eat grass.  "Everyone sit down quietly and when Miss Busby plays the music, all grow up like flowers" said the teacher.  Sam sat down OK, but when the flower bit came he had to be helped to his feet.  I knew he couldn't get up off the floor easily, but I hadn't really focused on it being a problem.  Being a flower was not going to be something he could excel at.

It turned out that not only did he have a dicky ticker, but also fairly severe dyspraxia.  He was given a statement of special educational needs in double quick time, and acquired a lovely lady who looked after him at school in work and play time to make sure he was warm enough, could access the lessons and did his exercises with the others, but at a less intense pace.

Statements of special educational needs such as Sam's are designed to make sure that children all get the same chances to thrive in school, even if they have some kind of physical or mental difficulty.  I have known many children with statements, for things as varied as blindness, ADHD, dyslexia, Autistic Spectrum Disorders the list goes on.  Once the team of child psychologists, doctors etc have assessed the child they recommend  what kind of help they need and the local authority provides the funds to the school to do it.  They used to be pretty common, but they are getting more and more difficult to get as the money gets tighter.

Sam was lucky.  His statement lasted through school until he left and went to college at 16.  It gave him extra time in exams because of his slow handwriting, and some in class support all through school.  I have no idea how he would have managed without it.  As it is he is a geologist with a masters degree from a good university.  I am so proud of him.

"George, don't do that" was a thing Joyce Grenfell used to say in one of her hilarious school monologues.

My George preferred puzzles to hitting the others so I was grateful for that.

I recognise the coat I am wearing.  It is my first ever coat with sleeves that were long enough.  I got it in Long Tall Sally.  I am not specially tall these days, still 5'10" but at that time I seemed to tower above everyone, and if the fashion industry were to be believed, I had the arms of an orang utang with knuckles which were barely clearing the floor.  Sleeves rarely came to my mid forearm.  I loved the coat because my mum had not had to add fur cuffs to make it fit.  Mums have a hard life. If they are not fashioning fur cuffs, they are  having to walk home carrying a sword and pushing an empty pushchair.  I expect I would be arrested if I carried even a plastic sword in public now.  Maybe it is one of those things for my list of "things to do before I die".