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Monday Memories: Beginnings #12 – Growing Up

Image depicts a small log upright on top of a larger log. An axe is embedded in the top of the small log. Split logs are scattered all around.
Chopping wood – one of the many tasks I undertook as a teenager.
Image found at today.fm

Back at school it was time to embark on the two year curriculum leading to GCE ‘O’ levels. In a small school the number of subjects that can be covered by the equally small staff is limited. Two years previously we’d been weeded into two streams for several subjects. In particular, the ‘A’ stream took Latin whilst the ‘B’ stream took woodwork. I was in the ‘A’ stream for French so, despite my objections, I was forced into the Latin class. In retrospect I suppose I should see it as flattery, suggesting that my teachers believed me capable of an academic career and that woodwork would be a waste of my talents. That was the culture back then – it still is in some quarters.

In maths I was on the border line between ‘A’ and ‘B’. Those in the ‘A’ stream at the end of the ‘O’ level programme would take two exams – Elementary Maths and Additional Maths. The latter included the bits that I found more interesting, trigonometry, differentiation, staistics and probability. I was disappointed to find myself in the ‘B’ stream.

Now we also had to choose between Art and History and between Geography and Chemistry. The other science, Physics, was not optional. I chose Chemistry believing that my future would probably involve science; and Art because it would not require me to spend hours learning dates and other historical facts. To my surprise I discovered a talent for drawing and for rendering light and shade in paintings. In the exams in summer 1958, I was awarded a higher grade than in any other subject, except French.

The previous February we had taken ‘mock’ ‘O’ levels, designed to demonstrate which areas we were weak in and on which we needed to concentrate our revision. I gained an appalling result in Latin. The teacher (not the one who had, years before, insisted I stick with it) said I probably ought to have given up on Latin much earlier. Not taking Latin from that point onwards left me with a number of free periods. I asked the Maths teacher if I could join his ‘A’ stream. He agreed and offered additional tuition to help me catch up. Although I did not pass the exam, that tuition was of considerable help when it came to continuing my studies part time as an apprentice Engineer.

Choosing not to study history was not easy. It, together with English, had been a subject in which I had gained high marks for essays. But writing an essay when you are able to check facts by referring to a text book is one thing. Doing so in an exam room, with only your memory to rely on, is very different. As it turned out, writing an essay for the English exam was not easy, either.

We were given a long list of subjects, none of which sparked inspiration. Writer’s block or exam nerves? Probably a combination, with the latter inducing the former. I wrote two completely inadequate essays in the time allowed, one of which I destroyed. Fortunately, there was also a grammar paper so the exam grade did not depend entirely upon the essay. I gained enough marks to get a pass, though not as high a grade as either I or the teacher expected based on past performance.

Our new home needed a great deal of work doing to bring it up to date. My mother’s partner embarked on this with enthusiasm, despite his many other casual jobs working for local farmers. Jobs which I’m sure provided the means with which to purchase materials as well as specialist labour for tasks beyond his own ability. During school holidays in 1957 and ’58, and at weekends and summer evenings after I left school, I was enlisted as general labourer to assist with this work, as well as gardening.

There was a steeply sloping front lawn with flower beds at the front of the house. A narrow passage separated the rear of the house from a retaining wall around 4 feet high beyond which was a sloping meadow. Our vegetable garden was across the narrow lane which was the only access to the house. Mum’s new partner also kept bees the care of which was another duty which I shared.

Image shows a newly layed hedge with a tangle of branches in the foreground and a rising gereen meadow behind.
A hedge layed in the Welsh Border style, showing
the surplus material alongside.
© National Hedgelaying Society

One of his specialist abilities was the laying, or pleaching, of hedges. This typically created a large amount of surplus material some of which was usefull as firewood and which he was allowed to take as part of his fee. Much of this material, however, was of no value and had to be burned on site. I frequently provided the unskilled labour in dealing with this as well as the subsequent sawing and chopping of firewood.

Monday Memories – Beginnings #11: Big Change Happens

By the summer of 1955 I had a second sister. That summer was unusually warm, or that is how I remember it. The baby spent her days lying in a pram in the shade of the laburnam tree whilst I worked in the garden.

By now I had begun to worry that, were my mother to marry her suitor, I might have to leave the boarding school because I would no longer be eligible under the foundation’s rules, now having in practical effect, two parents. At the Easter holidays in 1956, with still no sign of a divorce or a new home in the village, I came to believe, with no real evidence, that my mother was pregnant again. This made me inexplicably angry. It was a purely emotional reaction that I did not understand then, nor do I now. My intuition proved correct, however; by the summer holidays her condition was obvious. And, now at last, a house move was in prospect.

My three sisters outside the former Manse that we renamed “Homelea”. This photo was taken around 1960 or ’61.

The end house of a block of three on a hill just outside the village, originally the property of the trustees of the Baptist Church, had come on the market. My mother’s future husband’s employers had agreed to loan him the purchase price and an offer had been made. The aim was to move during the summer holidays so that I would be around to assist with the heavy lifting. As things turned out, I had to take the first week of term off because the legal documents were not sorted out until well into September.

I was due to return to school the day after the move. Many years before we had been given a collie-cross puppy. Fed entirley on scraps and the occasional dish of dog biscuits softened with tea, Bruce had become a loved family pet who was, by now, becoming quite elderly. My mother’s suitor, in addition to his full time employment as a council road maintenance man, carried out a number of specialist tasks on a casual basis for local farmers. These included rabit catching for which he used a wire-haired terrier as a working dog. There would not be space for two dogs in our new home.

Since the working dog would have to stay, the family pet would have to be sacrificed. My mother gave me a half crown and told me to go to the home of our landlord’s son who farmed the next property on our side of the lane. He cut hair for his male neighbours. “Get your hair cut. And take Bruce with you and ask him to put him down.”

I remember struggling to hold back the tears as my hair was cut. Job done, I sobbed out my mother’s instruction. “No, no, I can’t do that,” came the welcome response. Of course, I pleaded with him but he, no doubt well aware of my distress, was adamant.

Bruce was saved for a few days – until my mother’s suitor made the necessary arrangements days after I was back at school. Years later that incident was the inspiration for my book “Summer Day” in which a boy runs away with his sick dog, determined to prevent his father shooting it.