A tribute to my dear mama/mum

Until I went to school aged five, I called my mother Mama. Her birth name was Lila Elizabeth Havard, after a Fairy Queen her mother had seen in a play! ‘Mama’ was my God-mother, Aunt Doris,’ suggestion as she had grandiose ideas as to my up-bringing and saw me as a little lady of breeding who would doubtless learn to play the piano beautifully, knit Fair-Isle sweaters, blind-folded, embroider as if to the manor born, and POSSIBLY end up marrying someone higher up the ladder (and I don’t mean a window-cleaner.) As it transpired, while I may have mastered Chopsticks, and The Bluebells of Scotland, sewed a fairly neat hem, and even made a peg-bag, and a few cushion covers, etc., I’m afraid I disappointed in all other areas. And, because a strange, deranged little man with a moustache wanted to dominate the world and promote a “Master Race,” I didn’t attend the Convent School my aunt had mapped out for me. Meanwhile, I enrolled at the local, Dagenham village school, before being whisked away to live on a Welsh mountain when war was declared in the September of 1939. Then, realising I just belonged to the hoi polloi, I thereafter called my mother mum.

The Mansfields (my paternal relatives), needed to “set the scene,” thought they were a cut above. There was Royal Doulton china and crystal cut-glass in the display cabinet and a framed picture of Churchill on the wall to prove it!! The ladies of the family also bought glossy periodicals which “the toffs” purchased; and shopped in the very best West End stores whenever possible. Oh, and both Dad’s sisters owned FUR COATS, and wore Perfume by COTY… But I mustn’t give the wrong impression as, with the (later) exception of one of their number, they were consistently kind, caring, charitable and generous. But quickly back to mum…

Lila - editedSo, what was she like, my pretty, loving mum? Imagine a blue-skied and sunshiny day, with a soft breeze blowing and birds wheeling in the sky… That was my mum. She epitomized Spring and was blessed with a sunny, happy personality. (On later reading Laurie Lee’s book “Cider with Rosie,” mum put me in mind of his quirky mother as their sense of fun were similar!) She was a perfect foil for Dad’s no-nonsense: a spade is a spade, sterner make-up, although he had an earthy sense of humour, was as reliable as the clichéd Rock of Gibraltar and loved her to bits… Around five feet two inches, with a slender figure, mum belied an inner strength which repeatedly revealed itself.

Born in 1906, she lived to experience the Great Depression in South Wales and helped look after her two younger sisters. Grandad said she had ‘Dark brown hair like fine-spun sugar…’ A brick-layer and later, shop-keeper, he may have been, but he was a gentleman and charmed the ladies. Mum had left school at fourteen and worked selling ribbons and cottons in the market and in her parents’ greengrocer’s shop/and on a pony and trap serving customers living in the mountains. Too soon, everything was ‘on the slate, please, mun’ because of The Great Depression, and money was fast running out. Aged seventeen, mum begged to go to London to work but Grandma was convinced it was worse than Gomorrah. ‘Duw duw, you could be murdered, or worse.’ she cried. But, when feeding her family became critical, Grandma relented. Mum pointed her “winkle-pickers” in the East End of London’s direction and worked as a Nanny for the two children of talented Jewish tailors in Stepney.

Soon Lila was not only a Nanny, but taught how to cook Jewish dishes and do intricate beading work. Linking up with her best friend, Edna, the pair went dancing on their one day off and, as she said ‘The streets weren’t really paved with gold,’ as promised… but the lights were brighter and you could have ‘six-penny-worth of fun’ and watch American pictures too. She saved hard and soon had the requisite ten pounds to add to her mother’s hard-saved purse. Her family: Mam, Dad and three siblings, caught the train to Dagenham Dock station with packed suitcases and little else and were given a new Council house in Becontree, which her enamoured mother announced, was ‘Like a miniature Buckingham Palace!’ Mum said that was pushing it a bit… But it had a new roof which didn’t leak and a bathroom downstairs, three bedrooms up, and a proper garden at the back. ‘Not like that old slum in Dowlais,’ Grandma was heard to say.

Leaving the Soloman’s employ with regret, Mum then became a cinema usherette, also working part-time in the building’s café with her sister Peggy. She found life fun as she loved to dance and, being pretty, caught the eye of many a would-be suitor. One in particular pursued her and they became engaged, but he spent too much time on his motor-bike and Mum wasn’t cut out to play second fiddle to a bike! The move couldn’t have been luckier for another dancer and natty dresser (first in his crowd to wear plus-fours, it is said… ) called Charles (Charlie) who quickly stepped into the breach. He and Lila won a few prizes for their prowess on the dance floor – including “The Black Bottom’”- of the Cross Keys public house in old Dagenham and were soon seriously courting.

Lila and Charlie - editedEager to show off his new girl-friend to his family, Charles invited her to tea, much to the delight of his father, also Charles: a well-heeled Freemason, who had a penchant for pretty faces… The females in the family, however, on being introduced to an uneducated girl “from the Welsh valleys” almost had them reaching for their smelling salts… but Lila was polite, friendly and possessed a winning smile and they gradually accepted the inevitable. Charles was smitten, but found it difficult to ‘write my own life script’ as he later discovered. The happy pair were married in a – horror of horrors – Registry office, while the Mansfields were staunch Catholics, a fact the Father of the local church found difficult to comprehend and led to harsh words being exchanged. Although to keep the Mansfields’ happy, when I arrived on the scene, I was Christened by a Canon, no less. (Dad said ‘She should have been fired from one!’ when I decapitated his row of red, soldier-erect tulips, aged two.) After the birth of my second brother, the Priest visited our house and tried to persuade Mum to marry “in the church,” but went beyond the pale when he suggested all three of us children were illegitimate, and was quickly shown the door.

Like most working-class women then, mum was familiar with the Monday-wash-boiler, the scrubbing board and the outside mangle. Although we had indoor plumbing, we had no central heating until the mid/late 50’s – and only had a gas-fire for warmth on in the bedroom if we were very ill (once with measles). The stove in our tiny kitchen was much cosseted, as was the rare fire in the lounge fireplace. And the telephone, also installed in the 50’s, was almost revered, as was the “new-fangled” TV set.

Meanwhile, mum – by then a trained hairdresser – crimped and cut hair to help expenses go further, cooked delicious meals for the five of us and was everything a good mum should be. Then – wouldn’t you know – the lunatic little man mentioned above, started strutting his stuff and war, an incomprehensible state to us children, was declared. When rationing was introduced, Mum made all sorts of filling dishes, using more potatoes and vegetables from our garden, bread and fruit puddings and ‘apples in blankets’ (pastry) to fill our corners…she also made sure we had concentrated orange juice, cod-liver oil (ugh!) and Virol to keep us healthy, as – in due course – did dear aunt Sal. If any of us children received a B or C for our school-work, she’d give us a hug, sympathize and say ‘Never mind, you’ll get an A next time…’ while dad was the opposite of impressed…

paul-jespers-114448-unsplash plane - editedDad, having been an Air Force Cadet at the end of World War I and in love with aeroplanes, re-joined the Air Force and was one of the first wave of airmen to be called up for duty. After hastily digging a huge hole in our pristine, green lawn, he erected an outdoor air-raid shelter, as instructed, and then accompanied us three children and mum to South Wales. We were to stay in the relative safety of her cousin Sarah Jones’– Aunt Sal to us – tall, thin house, set into the side of Mountain Hare, just above Merthyr Tydfil. It didn’t have all ‘mod cons’. like ours, but I was enchanted with gaslight and candlelight… not so with the outside “lav,” with squares of the Merthyr Express on which to wipe one’s bottom!

Mum stayed on awhile, but dad had to join his unit in France. Having entrusted brother Bryan to the loving care of another aunt in Ebbw Vale, as Aunt Sal couldn’t cope with three children due to a badly ulcerated leg, mum left to stay with her mother and do “war work.” As mentioned above, Mum wasn’t very tall and quite slender, and we were surprised when next we saw her, as she had developed muscles…after working on a moving assembly belt of Army lorries at Ford’s Motors. She later moved to another company, where she was taught welding and became even stronger. Fortunately, during the first part of the war, it was fairly quiet, so we were transported back and forth a few times, especially as dad was given leave from France before things hotted up. Thereafter, Dagenham, and more specifically: our house became a dangerous place to live in as it was near the River Thames; Ford’s Motor works, churning out war machines; a huge drug factory and a railway – all likely targets for the German planes. A land-mine fell at the end of our street and demolished many houses and killed several people, but our house was only marginally damaged. In all, we were evacuated three times: to Merthyr, Neath and – with my secondary school, to Derbyshire. Towards the end of the war, dad was stationed near enough to visit our home and mum gave birth to my third brother, Royce (despite being warned about the aphrodisiac quality of eels to which he was partial). As mum was unwell, the doctor advised her to stay somewhere quieter, and the most generous family, who lived in Neath, Wales – and had two children of their own – took the five of us in, as aunt Sal was ill. You can imagine our sheer joy when peace was declared and we were all able to return to our own home: shaken and stirred but still intact, and dad was, at last, demobbed.

Lila 2 - editedDuring our absence, we soon discovered, Mum had re-decorated several rooms herself. There was a shortage of wallpaper, so she had “stippled” the walls with a design in a contrasting colour and I spent many odd times imagining all sorts of animals and magical “objects” floating up to the ceilings… It seemed, Mum was able to tackle most things, and a great advocate of “make do and mend.” She was always darning socks, turning shirt collars and bedsheets, and aware of the hard times, often said “That will do…” if an item of clothing had a vestige of life left. A keen dancer herself, she encouraged me when I reached my teens and joined the youth club. Mum and her father both won prizes for dancing and she played a mean piano. I recall her pounding the ivories in our Welsh centre during her visits. “Amapola,” “The Seigfried Line” and various popular tunes and songs were requested during her time with us, and she urged me to take ballet and tap lessons, which I adored.

As far as “lessons subtly-learned” while under my parents roof were concerned, Mum in particular emphasized that I should ‘show willing and be helpful to others’ as she did…and, while sex was never actually discussed, whenever I went out with a boy, she always told me to ‘be good now!’ which I interpreted as ‘keep your legs together,’ which I dutifully did, much to their annoyance. Every week, Mum and I went to the local cinema to see the latest British or American film and lapped up all the glamour and fantasy and she loved reading “Nell’s Books on Wheels” delivered locally every week She was particularly fond of romances and favoured medical tales. Mum had a knack of bringing sunshine into the house with some of her embroidered tales of people she worked with and even when it rained for a few days, managed to lift our spirits. Fortunately, both my parents were able to enjoy several holidays abroad as we children grew older, and still managed to impress on the dance floor!

As time wore on, and after I married, mum took advanced cooking courses and learned “Silver Service Waitressing,”securing an excellent post in the directors’ canteen of a large company nearby: May & Bakers, and worked there for several years. When she retired, she hated it, so arranged wedding functions and 2lst birthday celebrations and the like, with the able assistance of one of my sisters-in-law, Doreen; and made beautiful, iced celebration cakes. She also did flower arranging and made bridal bouquets, buttonholes and the like… (and even won prizes for her arrangements at the local Town Show.)

When my parents celebrated their Golden Wedding, as my husband and I were then running a hotel, we were able to entertain them with family and friends, for a fun weekend. It was so good to be able to make a fuss of them for a change! Sadly, as dad approached eighty, his lungs started letting him down – he was a heavy smoker when young and in the war, apart from working for so many years on the river. But he made it to eighty-three. Mum was, naturally, at first desolate at his passing, as were we. But we sold her house for her and bought her another, smaller one, just around the corner to ours.

Her hands were rarely still thereafter. She made delicious petit fours and boxed them up as gifts at Christmas time, still made large and small assorted cakes, and embroidered many pictures which my husband framed for her. She also knitted toys, covered coat-hangers and sewed lavender bags. We were able to take mum and a friend on two continental holidays – which she loved, and we spent many happy hours together. She so enjoyed being in the company of our three sons and her other grandchildren, was alert and keenly interested in them and what was happening in the outside world. She only went on one “Old people’s outing” as she termed them (aged eighty) but said: ‘I shan’t go with them again…Some of them clicked their teeth and talked about their operations all the time’

It was tragically ironic that mum – apart from a worn heart – and comparatively healthy for her age, was struck by an unlicensed car a few inches from a kerb, while out visiting a relative, suffered a broken hip and lapsed into an unconscious state for six, long weeks before dying. It was the most cruel blow of my life and I was bereft, but I still carry her treasured memory in my heart, as I will until I fall of my own perch. Mum loved all us four children unconditionally and, despite our faults, thought us “the bee’s knees…” and, as we thought she was too, you can’t ask for more than that. Can you?

If you’d like to read more about Joy’s life during Wold War II, order her book: “My Gentle War” which went to No.1 on Amazon Kindle in the Social history and memoir category.

© Copyright Joy Lennick 2019

Plane photo by Paul Jespers on Unsplash

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An interview with author Beryl Kingston

Beryl_resizedToday, I have great pleasure in interviewing someone very familiar with the writing craft. Not many of us can claim to have sold ONE MILLION BOOKS, but Beryl Kingston can. I can’t begin to imagine how that feels … Hugely proud and gratifying, I’m sure, and she must have worked so hard to have achieved that figure.

I’ll tell you more about Beryl later on, but first I’ve invited her to answer a few questions to give you some insight into what makes this amazing lady tick.

Hi Beryl, a warm welcome to the ‘writer’s hot seat.’ It’s great having you as my guest today. I promise it won’t be a bumpy ride!

Where were you born and what is your earliest memory?

image1To start at the beginning, I was born in Tooting in South London 88 years ago and my first memory is probably singing and dancing on a stage somewhere feeling completely happy with spotlights shining on my head and foot-lights warming my feet and people clapping and cheering in the darkness below me. I was probably about five.


Were your early years marked by an outstanding/unusual or particularly disturbing/amusing incident?

I’m afraid I can’t tell you amusing stories about my childhood because I was an abused child and spent most of my time in a state of twitchy anxiety and fear. The abuser was my mother who beat me with a cane from the time I was five, when my younger sister was born, until I was seventeen and finally took action to stop her. Not a pretty story. I wrote about it in some detail in ‘A Family at War’ so anyone who is interested can find it there. But there’s one fact that might interest other writers. In a roundabout way, being beaten made a writer of me. My mother enjoyed her brutality and was buoyed up by it, but she also had an image to protect, which meant that she had to take steps to ensure that her neighbours knew nothing about it. I had strict instructions to hide the marks she left on my legs and arms by wearing a thick cardigan and black stockings – she never hit my face, only my back, legs and arms. She used to say ‘Cover yourself up. You don’t want people to know what a wicked child you are.’ And I did as I was told because I agreed with her then and thought she was right. But I needed to talk about it and I needed it desperately. It didn’t seem right to me, that she could be so cruel and get away with it. And in the end I decided to keep a diary. I nicked and exercise book from school, kept it well hidden and wrote in it freely and honestly from the time I was seven and for the next twelve years until I married my darling. I never considered that anything I wrote or did could ever be any good or of any value. My mother made sure of that. She told me so often that I was a nasty wicked child, that I should never have been born, that I was useless and would never amount to a ‘row of beans’ and that my ‘dear little sister Pat’ would ‘make ten of me’. Naturally I believed her. So when I started to write poems and stories and plays I threw them away like the trash I thought they were.

Did evacuation in World War II have a lasting – good or bad – effect on you?

blitz_smlI don’t think being evacuated made a lot of difference to me. It was just something that happened. The London Blitz, on the other hand, was another matter altogether. That had a profound effect. My mother evacuated us all to Felpham on the day before war was declared, but having decided that we were going to make peace with Germany and that the Germans were going to fight the Russians, she brought us back to London in August 1940. We were just in time for me to watch the bombing of Croydon from the flat roof at the top of an apartment block, and, not long after that, the Blitz began. From then on we spent our nights in the cellar, listening to the ack-ack and the dreadful laboured droning of the German bombers, until November, when we were bombed out and she evacuated us again. But I was back in London in 1944 – on my own this time – so that I could attend the local Grammar School. And that meant I saw the terrible casualties and the widespread devastation that was caused by the doodle-bugs and Werner Braun’s obscene rockets. All of which I’ve written about in ‘London Pride’ and ‘Citizen Armies’ which is my latest book.

During your teaching years, did you nurture a growing desire to write?

It rather tickled me to be asked whether I ‘nurtured a growing desire to write during my teaching career’, because the question is so wonderfully inapplicable. I didn’t ‘nurture a desire’ to write, I just wrote and enjoyed it, even though I was still sure it wasn’t any good. It was as simple as that. Most of the time I wrote plays. I taught in a variety of schools and the bulk of my time was taken up with encouraging my pupils to enjoy learning, but whenever I found a drama club or a group of kids who wanted to act in a play, I wrote one for them. Very cumbersome things they were because anyone who wanted a part had to have one, so the casts were enormous – on several occasions over a hundred strong. It was great fun. The last five or six were musicals which I wrote in conjunction with a talented teacher from the music department. I learnt a lot from doing that.

What advice would I give to a young writer just starting out?

queen of sagas smlI don’t think I would give them any advice at all. We all have to discover our own writing methods and we are all different. I expect what a newbie would most like to know would be how to persuade one of the big publishers to take their manuscript and publish it and sell it in millions. But another writer can’t tell him/her that. What they need is a good agent. I can tell them how to set about looking for one but that’s the limit. I feel very sorry for newbies in these pushy times. There are thousands of wannabees out there all pushing their work as hard as they can and the competition must be soul destroying. I feel very fortunate to have had a Fairy Godmother around at the two big turning points of my life. One saw to it that the man I was going to marry should turn up on my doorstep at just the right time. The other arranged for an agent to be at the Frankfurt Book Fair and to pick up a rather esoteric book on the next stall on how to cope with period pain that had been published by Ebury and to be interested enough to read it. With his help and support – offered out of the blue and doggedly – I ended up having my first novel published by Century/Futura – no less – and became a best seller. But that’s the stuff of fairy tales. When I tell people the story I also tell them that when I’ve finished they’re at perfect liberty to chant, ‘Liar, liar, pants on fire’ because I don’t believe it either.

Separate from your writing, how would you like to be remembered?

I’m going to answer that with a – suitable when slightly adapted – quotation from Hilaire Belloc.

‘‘When I am dead,’’ he wrote, ‘‘I hope it may be said

His sins were scarlet, but his books were read.’’

***

More about Beryl and her books:

She was evacuated to a place called Felpham, during World War II, igniting an interest in poet William Blake, and went on to become a teacher until 1985 when she became a full-time writer.

Her debut novel “Gates of Paradise” was her 20th novel on Google Books. She admits to writing VERY BAD poems, aged seven but, hey, give a little girl a break! She redeemed herself when her first novel became an instant best seller years later. Beryl is an eclectic writer, publishing family sagas, modern stories and historical novels, including books about the first and second world wars. She reached the pinnacle of one million books with No. 12, and has also written plays for children, stories for magazines and a novella about a conceited cat!

Our celebrated author won The Blake Society Tithe Grant Award, and has been married for 54 years, has three children, five grandchildren and ten great-grandchildren – all apples of her eye… Another distinction, is for receiving the top level for public library lending with her 4th book.

Beryl’s books, include:

“Hearts and Farthings”

And the sequel “Kisses and Ha’pennies”

Modern: “Laura’s Way” and “Maggie’s Boy”

Historical: 18th/19th/20th centuries, WWI & II – “A Time to Love” and “Avalanche of Daisies.”

Beryl’s 30th book, ‘Citizen Armies’, will be published this year on 2nd September.


Her books can be purchased from Amazon UK / Amazon.com and from bookstores

You can find Beryl on Twitter and her Website

© Joy Lennick 2019

Pictures © copyright Beryl Kingston & Imperial War Museum

Back to the 50’s – The Wedding

Now… where did I leave off? Not exactly on a ‘cliff hanger,’ but nevertheless a ‘big’ moment in my young life. I was accepted into the Jewish faith, and relieved that I was at least over that hurdle. I also had a mental picture of my future mother-in-law smiling broadly, for ‘arrangements’ had to be made! But that was in the future. My ‘significant other’ and I continued to save and plan, until we caught sight of the wedding date. What followed was testing to say the least. The topic of ‘the table seating plan…’ arose, as expected. (Any readers unfamiliar with Jewish wedding table planning will, sadly, not appreciate the ironic humour and angst which accompanies such a feat of endurance.)

Don’t you dare seat Aunt Beccy next to Uncle Solly…There could be fireworks. Oy vey!” And the fraught subject of the mixing of The Cohens, The Catholics and the ‘Taffies’ was aired and discussed.

I had to ask Grandma H to tell Uncle William and Uncle Percy not to slink out to the pub half -way through the proceedings. (Common in ‘working class’ Christian weddings at that time!) Oh the shame…

Aware that we couldn’t ‘let the side down’ so to speak, regarding the wedding reception, Eric and I worked our butts off and saved hard: walking everywhere when possible and watched the pennies grow into pounds.

It didn’t take a lot to make us happy and we had great fun just being in each other’s company. The time flew, until, on a very special, freezing Sunday in February, 1953, with the snow glistening in the sunshine, we were spliced at the Bernard Baron synagogue in East London. As tradition decreed – and as Eric’s parents were separated, and mine were not of the Jewish faith – we had ‘stand-ins’ under the Chuppa. Let me explain: mature couples, usually friends of the bride and groom, step forward in such cases and deem it an honour to ‘stand under the Chuppah’ for the couple. But before that part of the proceedings took place, we were taken to the relevant houses of the couples and given a tasty ‘breakfast’ (not an egg or rasher of bacon – bite your tongue – in sight!) Back to the synagogue, under the silver-embroidered, velvet chuppah, resplendent with early Spring flowers, with vows made and the ceremony complete, a glass in a velvet bag was crushed underfoot by the bridegroom to the congregation’s cry ‘Mazel tov!’ (good fortune or luck). The obligatory photographs followed (taken by the – later famous – ‘Mirror’ newspaper photographer Monty Fresco.) Thereafter we ate enough to feed a multitude of people – all delicious it must be said – in time to the lively music of a four piece Jewish band. Da-da-da-da-da-da-da….da-da-de-da…etc., It was difficult not to raise soup spoon, knife, fork and pastry fork to our lips in time to the rhythm! Food digested, we danced – of course – then, phew – tiny pastries, hot cherries and ice cream, were served to keep hunger pangs at bay around 10 o’clock…all washed down with copious amounts of wine. Bouquet duly despatched, my hew husband and I were driven to a two night honeymoon in the Strand Palace hotel.

I recall showering confetti in the lift, and blushing as the ‘lift boy’ grinned in his knowledge that we were newly-weds. Breakfast in bed – in a hotel! – was a first and we later walked down the Strand and nearly froze as the temperature plummeted. We had enough money between us for a magazine and a box of chocolates to also entertain us after dinner… and left with sixpence between us once the fare home had been paid! Happy as larks – we had some money left over after the ‘affair’ had been paid for (which Mum was holding for safe-keeping) – we set up home in ‘two rooms and a landing (the kitchen),’ in ‘Mr. and Mrs. Golding’s’ house in Forest Gate, a London suburb. Water was two flights of stairs down and our kitchen consisted of a gas stove, eye level cupboard and a waist high cupboard. We managed fine and lived there for three and a half happy years, entertaining friends and even having a few parties!! How times and needs have changed!