Category Archives: Remember when

At the school gate

Forced to rest after having major surgery this month, I have watched every episode of Motherland on television. Have you seen it? This sitcom is so representative of school gate life that I can recognise most of the characters in it as though I were standing next to them yesterday. Yesterday being from 1984-1998 if I have the dates right.
I knew the teachers well, I even took my youngest into the classroom aged eight months, for a study the seven year olds were doing on human development, at their teacher’s request. I helped with crafts and read to the children on special occasions, but only when time permitted. This was not very often. My usual excuse was,
“I’m so sorry, I have the little one you see…”
“Oh, bring him/her,”
“Oh, I couldn’t possibly but maybe when he/she is older,”
This was as far as my interaction with school went in truth.
I’d be there with the best of them at after school matches, cheering my boys or girls on. I’d go to every play, every church service (Wednesdays 9-10am) in the term. I’d do my bit.

I hasten to add, to anyone supposing I was one of the ‘in crowd’ that I shunned their overtures for the most part. I was more than happy to go my own way with my ‘millions’ of children. (I exaggerate, I had five with the occasional hangers on to pushchair and car.) I was once asked how many of the five were mine and was I a childminder, oh, and did I have any spaces? I said my womb was full, thank you.
Parents accompanied children on numerous school trips to make up the adult numbers– I went on one or two when forced, under protest, with gritted teeth.
Friends of the Primary School, known as FOSPS, did their bit to raise funds. They were stalwart in their endeavours, they canvassed and heckled and beamed at us in the playground as their children, Marcus and Miranda, invariably ran through the flowerbeds and created havoc. They organised events, they tried to rope us bystanders in and we did our best by offering things to sell, sponsoring and dressing our children in outlandish costumes. Now that’s the bit I actually enjoyed, come to think of it. Not the fund raising part of it but the making of the costumes. Whether for a school project, a fund raiser or a disco, I was there with my scraps of fabric and my children.
I have some photos of the result – how about these? The three girls dressed for Victorian day in one and for a fancy dress competition for book day, in which middle daughter wanted to be the BFG and the youngest, Tom Thumb. Not bad from scraps.

Three Victorian Girls

Three Victorian Girls

The birthday parties which grew more competitive every year, I ignored for the most part. My party bag gifts were often home-made (finger puppets were a hit for the 5 year olds). Parties for the under sixes, are the best. The birthday cake was hit and miss but always greeted with amazement, (The treasure chest was my piece de resistance). Sadly, I cannot find a photo of it. See this photo of the Maypole Princess Tree instead…

and this…
Alex's 2nd birthday

My children just had each other on some occasions and on others, they had friends round for tea and games. Traditional parties held true until they were seven when experience had taught me, to invite twelve boys and girls (twelve was the limit) after the age of seven or even at the age of seven, was ‘bloody’ hard work. The girls, being mini teenagers, questioned everything. They didn’t want to play pass the parcel, they were gossiping about whatever it is 7-year-olds gossip about and doing their hair and squealing a lot. Even back then, they wanted Karaoke not the Okey Kokey. The boys ignored all attempts at discipline and preferred to race round the house doing everything one had spent a lot of time teaching one’s own kids not to do, high on ‘e’ numbers that we didn’t know were there.
Fizzy drinks only came out at birthdays in our house.
Beyond the age of seven, things changed. A birthday child was allowed to bring a friend along to the Zoo, Legoland or the Beach. I insisted on one friend rather than two as two would mean there was always the chance two would gang up on one. My strategy was to divide and conquer!
By the time our eldest reached the age of twelve, things had changed again and we were into sleepover and pyjama parties. From then until they grew tired of the idea, we suffered the indignities of hiding upstairs while our one sitting room was given over to a gaggle of girls or boys with sleeping bags who neither slept nor kept quiet all night. The next day, we would be greeted by bleary eyed thirteen-year-olds.
“Tired?” we’d enquire.
“It was great, thank you Mrs Barker,” the teens would say politely while my own would look on in discomfort. Why was I engaging in conversation? How embarrassing! Grumpy with tiredness now, off they’d trot to their beds for a rest.
Some of these children’s parents would have been on the committees and boards and fundraising teams of the school. I knew them by name, I had the odd conversation with them. Individually, they were fine. En masse, I baulked at their efficient, military-like organisation. (But where would we be without them?)
I walked up to the school, on the days when the car was at the garage or it was just a lovely day for a walk. It was a mile and a half away so a three mile walk for me there and back.
The 4x4s were already appearing in the nineties. They’d park on the zig-zag lines outside the school and deposit Tamsin and Tarquin at the gate and we’d all tut tut as we walked by.
“Coming to the wine testing tonight?” they’d trill, tickets on sale now!” as they closed the car door and sped off up the road to their next appointment.
We’d mumble something about being busy or pretend we’d not heard. You learn how to slide under the radar when you are somewhere for fourteen years, (we, being the group of friends I had made over the years who were kind, thoughtful and not at all overbearing.)
I’d walk home in my jeans and T shirt with my offspring trailing behind me, the eldest way behind,
“I don’t want to be seen with you all,” she’d say, mortified that she had so many brothers and sisters. I should have seen it coming. When I had three girls, she turned to me, then three and a half and said,
“Mummy, you are like the old woman in the shoe, you have so many children, you don’t know what to do!”
If driving, I’d jump into my old Peugeot 505 estate with its eight seats, giving a lift to one or maybe two friends on the way. I borrowed the family car a few times. We had an Espace and later, a Previa. It was the Previa that caused consternation in the car park as I pulled out the pram wheels and assembled my second hand, much cherished pram bought for my unexpected but much loved and wanted, youngest child.
“New car?” someone said, “How do you find driving the Previa?”
“Oh, my husband’s, no not new…” I began.
“Don’t you just love it?”
“It’s ok but I find the turning circle nowhere near as tight my Peugeot. It’s ok for a stand-in,” I confessed.
She looked mortally offended. Her smile became a little more fixed, her eyes a little more glittery.
I grabbed bag and baby and deposited all in the pram and summoned my brood.
She did not walk with me to the school.
I pushed the pram back into the car park, now devoid of bags and children but thankfully, still containing baby, (quite a feat given that dad who wanted to throw him up into the air in the playground every day) My heart missed a beat each time J swung my son round and tossed him skyward. I had to watch him sail through the air, baby laughed, baby loved it.
After the second or third incident, I began strapping baby into the pram instead of carrying him. I protested royally if other dad came near,
“He’s tired, he’s sick, he doesn’t like it,” I lied as he made to pick my child up.
This probably wouldn’t happen today.
I prepared to load the pram back into the boot and was just in time to see my earlier inquisitor reverse her brand new Previa out of the parking bay and sail off up the road without looking at me. Oops!
I was a stay-at-home mum so had ample time for the school run, although I wrote and painted and crafted and kept housework to a minimum. I barely had time for a coffee morning, a wine tasting or an afternoon tea.
In the mid-nineties I was being published and I was extraordinarily busy, helping run an online writer’s club as well, preparing for art exhibitions etc.
I would never have had time for FOSPS, nor for trips to the woods. I was happy being with my friends, popping in for a quick coffee, having lunch at the pub at end of term and just doing my own thing.
There were women who worked back then of course. The odd nanny or Grandparent did the school run. Occasionally, the mothers of those children would make it to the school gate. They’d be wearing designer suits, amazing makeup and perfectly coiffured hair. They’d leave a trail of perfume in their wake.
“What are they talking about?” they’d hiss as a FOSP pushed a fund raising pamphlet into their perfectly manicured hands. The earth mothers disapproved and looked askance at them.
“Ignore it,” I’d advise, pushing my own pamphlet into my bag to be binned later (after I had written a cheque for something or other of course)
I must say that I did my own bit for these harassed mothers who I remembered from the days of yore when we stood in the playground together. I collected their children, gave them their tea, and cleaned them up when they messed up. I did this for a friend who ran the playschool.
Now that was a story.
Young D was a timid child. He and my son were best buddies (I think) aged four. It was my job to collect both my own son (the baby) and D on Thursday afternoon from school. That day I diligently waited for the bell and then walked back to the car with children. As we drove into the drive I realised with a sinking feeling that someone was missing. I had left D in the classroom.
“get back in, no don’t all get out, do up your seatbelts…!” I yelled and sped back to the school where the teacher sat smiling, holding D’s hand.
“Oh I knew you’d be back,” she told me, handing him over. I was not so sure. It was pure chance I had realised he wasn’t with me.
D was scared of our Lurcher. D was scared of everything. Steven donned a scary mask (most unsuitable)and frightened him half to death.
I spent those afternoons, placating and cuddling him and telling him it was ok, no one was going to hurt him. Not sure he believed me.
After a particularly traumatic incident in which he fled up the stairs screaming because the dog had stretched and yawned, I decided I had to call it quits.
My friend understood, I think.
We had a fairly relaxed approach to parenting. When my youngest daughter was eleven, she had a couple of friends round for tea. She and the friends went across to the park afterwards. To get there, they had to cross the main road. The road was not very busy in those days and my older children could all cross it comfortably. I checked with the friends that their parents let them cross roads in broad daylight. They both nodded.
When their parents came to collect them, the girls were discussing their trip to the park.
“You crossed the road?” one traumatised father asked.
“It’s fine, it isn’t busy…” I interjected, sensing trouble.
As they left, I clearly heard one say to the other,
“The trouble with this family is no discipline!”
Well, really. How very rude!

I didn’t go out to work again until my youngest was seven. (Not counting the years in which I helped my husband set up and expand his business) At long last, I became one of the mothers who rush home to make it in time for the pickup. I no longer wore jeans and T shirts, I was smartly dressed and swanned in and out of the playground for a while at 3.30pm until the youngest could make his own way home, with a friend.
We had our ups and downs, my son once jumped out of the car and raced back home in protest only to tell me, after numerous such events in a fortnight, that he had sorted it all out. He had been used to me being at home and hadn’t liked me not being there but he now realised that even if I didn’t pick him up, I would be home soon afterwards. Guilty? Of course, I felt guilty!

My own daughters now stand at the school gates. They all work, one can choose her hours (the designer and University lecturer) one sends her son to afterschool and breakfast club and the other has a Nanny for her three. They all have Grandma’s day care when needed. I am happy collecting, dropping off etc. I recognise the characters I would have encountered back then, even today. It never changes. I can spot the doers, the organisers, the hangers on and the ones who try to fly below the radar, with ease.
I am greeted by everyone with smiles because I am Grandma, I am doing a great thing here. I am not asked to join the committee for this or that or inundated with letters and pamphlets and emails as my daughters are, so I have time to stand back and watch.
Such a rich fabric to observe as the various groups form and my daughters’ friends, some of whom used to come to their parties, rush in with baby in pram and toddler tagging behind and realise they have forgotten to bring the sunflower pot back, or to dress their child in costume.
I can smile and be thankful that my time at the school gate may not truly be ended, but it is different.
Thank you Motherland* for reminding me what a rich tapestry, school life weaves.

*https://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/p05j1k3t/motherland-series-1-episode-1

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“Ooh Betty!”

My brother-in-law was a character indeed. When he left this world in November 2007, it became a poorer place without him.
A devout born again Christian, he preached the gospel and prayed every day. Even in his darkest moments, when death beckoned, he believed he would be saved. I sincerely hope he was.
His faith was strong but so was his sense of humour. He had learnt to laugh at himself because there really was no other way.
Anyone who is familiar with Frank Crawford’s Frank Spencer from, “Some mothers do ‘ave em,” can easily imagine what Stuart looked like. He was the image of a young Michael Crawford in his younger years, to the point where he was asked for his autograph when queuing for the theatre where, “The Phantom of the Opera” was being shown.
“Is it him? Is it?” those nearest whispered, before timidly offering their programmes up for an autograph.
(Had Stuart had a raincoat with him and a beret, he would have treated them to his infamous impression of, “Ooh, Betty,”)

“Oh, Stuart! aged 40”


Stuart and Rocky

Stuart with Rocky 1973 – the first of several Old English Sheep Dogs…


Frank Spencer

Frank Spencer (Michael Crawford) as seen on BBC 1973-1978)

Ironically, his character was actually closer to that of the fictional, Frank Spencer, with his good intentions and hilarious outcomes. My long suffering sister, took great delight in relating his tales of woe to us after a holiday or a good deed gone wrong had occurred.
It seems a shame not to bring those tales out now and then so, as both my sister and my brother-in-law have been in my thoughts this week, I thought I’d share a little of the beleaguered life of Stuart.

My sister reckoned he was an accident waiting to happen.
Always the first to lend a helping hand, he offered to help out some friends opening a new chemist shop, by painting the floor one evening. Unfortunately, the hapless Stuart painted himself into a corner and his only form of escape was to climb along the shelves that lined the walls, these tipping at an alarming 45 degrees as he went.
There was the time he decided to shorten a door to fit over the new carpet. He was more than pleased with his efforts, not being known for his DIY skills, and measured carefully before he re-hung the door. Unfortunately, he had sawn off an inch from the top. The door still didn’t shut but there was a handy ventilation slit at the top.

His trips abroad were no less eventful. On an overnight drive to Austria, my sister slept in the passenger seat, only to be woken by Stuart nudging her into semi-consciousness, saying,
“There’s another toll!”
“How much?” my sister asked, blinking tiredly.
“I don’t know, get out the largest note and ask how much it is, we need the change,” Stuart shrugged.
My sister wound down her window and waved the hundred franc note under the official’s nose,
“Combien?” she enquired.

“Out, out!” shouted the official.
Everything was searched, suitcases, car, my sister and husband…This was a customs point and she had just attempted to bribe the border guard. Thankfully, the officials soon waved them on. Obviously, these strange people were harmless English folk.

On yet another trip, while staying in an Austrian motel en route, Stuart decided to be helpful and strip the beds in the morning, against my sister’s loud protestations. Feeling extra helpful, he stepped out onto the landing and seeing a pile of dirty linen by the adjacent door, he placed the sheets on top, muttering that the maids were so busy, it would be good to help them a little.
On returning from their holiday, a fortnight later, they opted to stay at the same hotel. As they walked into the reception, the proprietress became rather agitated and greeted them with,

“Ah, Monsieur and Madam ‘Olliday, the last time you were ‘ere you took ze sheets!” in excited French.
My sister, whose French was a little rusty, struggled to interpret the woman’s excited accusation. It was not until much later, whilst soaking in a warm bath, that she realised what had actually been said,
“Stuart, they think we stole the sheets!” she gasped.
It took much explaining and gesticulation on her part, to let the woman know what had really happened. Like a scene from “Alo Alo” by all accounts, my sister endeavoured to explain,
“My ‘usband…mon mari…’e put, il met, le sheets, les courverts…outside la chambre à coucher,” she stammered.
I am not sure the woman believed them.
The list of Stuart’s mishaps lengthens.
There was the time Stuart brought home a very expensive suit on approval from Gieves & Hawks but wasn’t sure whether he liked it or not so he asked his friend and near neighbour, if he could walk up to his house in it for his opinion. It was slushy and icy outside and needless to say, Stuart slipped over on the ice and put a great hole in the knee of the trousers, returning home with blood pouring from the wound.
“Well, I’ll have to buy it now,” he grimaced, (and it cost another £100 to have it invisibly mended).
We were not immune to Stuart’s hilarious antics. Visiting my sister and her family one weekend, we were there when Stuart decided to cook a full English Breakfast. This was something he did not normally eat and which was regarded as a rare treat.
I should explain that he and his friend and neighbour, enjoyed a friendly rivalry where food and drink was concerned. The previous evening, Pete had appeared at the garden wall with a glass of a particularly fine wine. Stuart was not able to drink at the time.
Having dished up two breakfasts, one for my husband and one for himself, Stuart remarked that Pete would be so jealous, he must show him.
Picking up his plate, he crossed the kitchen and walked over to the fence, calling for Pete to come and see this amazing breakfast he had cooked.
As he raised the plate to show his neighbour, the family dog – an Old English Sheepdog, a larger version of Theo, leapt at him in excitement, eager to participate in whatever it was he was doing. The plate and the breakfast took seconds to hit the deck and it was a much chastened Stuart who returned to the table, empty handed.
When we had all picked ourselves up from the floor and wiped our eyes, Dave spluttered,
“Would you like to share mine?”
I could go on but I think I may have given you enough to gauge what sort of man Stuart was. I won’t go into detail about the time he disappeared Christmas morning to attend a Church Service, promising to be back to help Beverly in the kitchen by ten thirty. (She was cooking for a large family gathering). At eleven o’clock, Stuart burst into the house and demanded we find a fishing net. A child’s fishing rod and net, was found in the shed.
‘There’s a bird in the church and we need to catch it,” he called as he hurtled out of the house.
Beverly sighed and we all offered our services in the kitchen. Stuart returned at 1pm.
Dinner was served up at 1.30pm. Beverly had done us proud. The table looked amazing, Stuart emerged from the shower (bird catching is dirty work) and sat down to eat.
At the end of the meal, he stretched, sat back in his chair and announced,
“Well, Beverly, that was very…” we waited with baited breath. Surely he was about to compliment his wife for serving us such a feast despite his untimely absence…
“…disappointing,” he finished.
Ever heard a pin drop? You’d have been in with a chance at that moment. Had it been me, the gravy boat would have sailed across the table and landed on my brother-in-law’s head. No such outburst came from my sister. A look passed between them. That’s all.

Sometimes, a look is enough.

Do houses have souls?

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