blah, blah, blah.
With reference to my previous blog:
I have been a bit presumptuous; I'm not actually on the MA course yet. Apparently, it is subject to the assessment of a sample of my creative writing.
I am thinking of renamimg my autobiography, The Trials and Tribulations of Trying to be a Working-Class Literary Academic.
I have collated my autobiographical blog to form a single text, and this I have submitted to the gatekeepers.
This is the first version and not by any means the last. It needs mixing up a bit and bits adding etc. It looks alright to me. Anyway, still got a whole lot of blogging to do!
Here it is:
Autobiography of a Coalminer’s Daughter
The title to this chapter, ‘April Fool’, is intended as a reference to my birthday, albeit when looking back at some of the things I have said and done, I cringe and think, ‘What an idiot!’ On these occasions ‘April Fool’ seems wholly appropriate as a pre-text. It also affords me some comfort in knowing that I’m not entirely to blame for my own foolishness: I can’t help it, it’s in the stars. Case in point is one occasion during an A-level psychology lesson when the teacher said she thought it would be a good idea if we all wore (what I heard as) mouse suits. ‘Well, yeah,’ I said, ‘it could be interesting and fun, although perhaps we would get a bit hot and the long tails might be a health and safety issue.’ She gave me a strange look of incomprehension (the sort I have now grown accustomed to). ‘Mao suits,’ she said, ‘MAO SUITS!’ She slowly spelt it out, ‘M…A...O... Do you not know what a Mao suit is?’ Well, quite frankly I did not. Let’s get this straight from the start, nobody told me anything. ‘Oh,’ I giggled nervously, ‘I thought you said mouse suits.’ (Psychologists and mice, you know…long tradition and all that.) Needless to say, the rest of the class found this episode quite amusing. The teacher did not. She gave me a look of disdain, muttered something about me being a ‘silly girl’ and turned away. My heart sank. Henceforth, she would look upon me as a moron, and they would probably have a good laugh about it in the staff room. She didn’t bother explaining to me what a Mao suit is, or why she thought it would be a good idea if we all wore one. But I was intrigued, and after the lesson I made a point of finding out for myself. This was probably my impromptu introduction to communist ideology. I didn’t think much on it at the time, but now I’ve had time to reflect on the significance of what she was talking about I would probably agree.
Working-class people have a reputation for thinking their lives too insignificant and/or too uneventful for them to write their life-stories. I asked my mum if she had ever thought about writing her autobiography, and she said she hasn’t done anything worth writing about. Mum’s reply was typical and bares the mark of self-effacement: a quality commonly observed in working-class autobiographers. This means thinking your story doesn’t deserve to be heard because in the scheme of things it doesn’t, you don’t, matter. Well, I’m the opposite really; lots of things have happened to me and even the smallest happening has had its significance. Even the walk to school had its moments.
Our house was a three-bedroom terraced. Across the road facing was a large textile factory. You could hear the rhythmic whirling of the knitting machines during working hours. (I like the continuity with my working-class women counterparts here, although the machines were electric, not steam or water powered, and I never worked there). Ours wasn’t an industrial area by any means, more like a small rural village on the outskirts of a larger mining town. Anyway, somewhat incongruously, the factory was there, and we lived across the road from it. I started school at the age of five. There was no pre-school or nursery school then, you were just suddenly wrenched away from home and left alone with a room full of strangers for eight hours a day. I think for the first six months I was too traumatized to learn anything. The school was about a mile from our house. At first my mum used to walk me there while pushing my little sister along in her pram, until I was a bit older when I could make the journey by myself. To get to school I had to walk down our street, cross the main road at the bottom and take an off-road footpath, which meandered downhill through what was called the Churchyard, due to the old Norman church and graveyard that was there. Tall conifers lined the footpath, which made it somewhat dark and damp even on the brightest day. The church was halfway down on the left hand side. Parts of it date back to the thirteenth century. It is built of grey stone, which is blackened in some places and dark green in others due to numerous centuries of weathering and moss. There is a stumpy square bell tower with a dark blue clock face, and misshapen gargoyles strategically gurn from the corners at passersby. On each side of the church lichened gravestones protrude from the ground at all angles, somewhat haphazardly as if they were lacking a sense of symmetry in those days. To put it simply it’s a spooky place, and the way I seemed to attract the occult made it even spookier. I remember once we had to do a school project which involved grave-rubbings - you hold a sheet of white paper over the head stone and rub over it with a crayon so the imprint remains on the paper. Some of the epitaphs are really quite touching, but this wasn’t a poetry exercise it was a history lesson. It wasn’t so scary when there were other people around. Needless to say, when I was on my own I ran past the church and the graveyard as fast as I could, until I got to the bridge at the bottom of the hill.
On the right hand side of the footpath opposite the church there is an iron gate, which leads to a large grassed area. In the centre there is a huge monumental concrete cross with steps leading up to it: the local war memorial. Huge horse-chestnut trees flank the area. We used to come here ‘conkering’ after school; we would collect the fallen conkers from the ground and throw sticks at the branches to release the ones still there. To make the conkers harder we would soak them in vinegar for days, and then bake them in the oven until they were shrivelled and looked liked rocks. The conkers would then have a hole put through the centre, and a piece of string threaded through. Then they would be ready for battle. We would take it in turns to try to hit our opponent’s conker as they held it in mid-air. The one that remained on the string the longest was the winner. I wasn’t very good at this to be fair. It was more of a lads’ game and they meant business - it was really painful when they missed your conker and hit your outstretched hand instead. I preferred gathering the conkers, rather actually playing with them. Marbles was a game more to my liking. This was popular at school break-time. The aim was to push a little glass ball into a hole using the side of your finger. Holes could be found in abundance in the school yard; they had varying difficulties, like golf. Marbles could become quite competitive and even obsessive as you became drawn into the untiring pursuit of a personal favourite which you were determined to win from another person, such as a particularly attractive multicoloured one or a rare larger crystal one. At some point, the girls started playing football at break times. The girls and boys had separate yards. The boys had always played football, I don’t know how it came about but the girls started playing their own game. One of us brought in a football from home, and we would take it in turns to be captains and pick our two teams. We would mark the goals on two opposite walls using our coats and jumpers. Our yard was next to the headmaster’s house, and often the ball would go flying over the school wall into his vegetable patch. It was very nerve-racking having to scramble over the wall to retrieve the ball while the others kept-look out for the teacher on break-time patrol. We were ‘into’ football generally though, mainly because we usually had a crush on some handsome football player. I remember tearing a picture of Frank Worthington out of a magazine and sending it off to Leicester City football Club, and being thrilled when it came back signed.
The bridge at the bottom of the hill where the church is takes you over a brook. It’s not very deep, but the water is fast running and typically gurgles, which, if you let your imagination run away, sounds like somebody being strangled. The present bridge is a modern day flimsy metal replacement for the original stone one, and with each tentative step a loud clang reverberates ominously into the damp atmosphere. A gang of boys started hanging around the bridge. I surmised they were pupils from the other local primary school, which was of Church of England denomination. There was some animosity and rivalry between the two schools, but I didn’t put this down to religious differences. The main difference I was aware of was that unlike us they didn’t have to wear school uniform. I heard that the boys had ambushed one of our girls on her way home from school, and threw her into the brook. It’s only two inches deep and she had slim chance of drowning, but she was nevertheless traumatised by the experience. One afternoon, I’m on my way home and I see the boys by the bridge and my heart starts pounding. I think if I just keep on walking they won’t take any notice, and let me pass without incident. Wrong. As I approach one of them whispers, and they all look at me and start to move forward. Well, I'm prepared for this, so I run past them like the wind. I was used to legging it up that hill, so they had no chance. However, they did manage to grab my satchel, so they threw that in the water instead. My mum and I retrieved my sodden bag later, but the boys had gone by then thus escaping reprimand. The school must have some complaints though, because shortly afterwards our headmaster spoke in morning assembly about some boys bullying girls in the vicinity; he said they had been dealt with and assured us not to worry. Thankfully, I never saw the boys again.
After the church, the graveyard and the brook have been negotiated, the footpath emerges back onto a public street. You then have a steep hill to ascend to reach my school at the top. At the bottom of the hill there is a small row of houses, surrounded by a high privet hedge. One day, I was showing off my new pair of shoes to a friend – every new school year my mum took me to Clarkes shoe shop in town to get my feet properly measured. I’ve never had any foot problems, so credit to her for caring about my feet when I was young. So, I was showing off my new shoes to a friend - sticking my foot out and for some reason performing high kicks - when one of my shoes flies off, and goes over the hedge and into the garden. There was no one in and no way to get it back. I had to walk all the way home with just one shoe. My mum, although annoyed, was quite reasonable about it and we later went to get my shoe back. A few days later I was having a laugh about the incident with somebody else, and while demonstrating what had happened the shoe flew off again and into the same garden, so I had to walk home with one shoe again. This time my mum was not so forgiving, and I got a right telling off
At the top of the hill is my school: land-marked by the red-bricked stained-glass windowed Roman Catholic Church that takes priority on the road side. Every Wednesday morning we, the pupils, had to attend a full-length mass. We would file in to the church from our classrooms. I didn’t wonder why there were there no women priests, no women alter-servers, why girls had to cover their heads and boys didn’t - I used to put my anorak hood up. It just doesn’t occur to you at that age: it’s just the way it is. The thing with Catholic primary schools is that a lot of time is spent on religious instruction, such as the Catechism and the Creed; initiation into the Sacraments, such as Holy Communion and Confession, and the celebration of feast days and festivals, such as Christmas and Easter. I remember having to learn the Catechism by rote. It taught us things like Baptism enables eternal life, and the Blessed Trinity consists of God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Ghost. (These are such difficult concepts to comprehend as a child, and it is no wonder I was highly susceptible to that ghost in my house.) We also had to learn the times-tables and spelling words by rote. It is easy to repeat something mindlessly, but the information just doesn’t sink in. Thank goodness they caught on that this method of teaching is not conducive to learning. However, learning lines is something I’ve always found problematic. I recall many a tortuous hour I spent years later trying to learn quotations from Shakespeare for my English literature ‘A’ level: ‘I am more sinned against than sinning’ is one that springs to mind. When I started school I could read and write quite well, having been taught by my mother at home, but at school they had those Peter and Jane books which were based on phonetic learning. These set me back. It was like looking at another language, and I felt stupid until the rest of the class caught up and we went on to ‘proper’ books.
Christmas at school was lovely. I have fond memories of assembling the huge Crib, making decorative stained-glass windows out of coloured transparent plastic and glitter, constructing angels’ wings out of cardboard and tin foil for the nativity play, and singing in the Christmas carol service. The highlight was the Christmas Fair. It was held on a Saturday afternoon, and was open to the public. The school hall was packed with various stalls and games: the bottle stall where you could win anything from a bottle of tomato sauce to a bottle of whiskey; the pick- a-straw stall where you win everything else; the guess the name of the doll stall; the guess how many sweets in the jar stall; and numerous cake stalls. Santa (St. Nicholas) paid us a visit, and at the end of the day there was a big raffle.
Easter wasn’t so much fun. Easter is the biggest feast day in the Catholic calendar, and is marked by sacrifice, suffering and sadness – and, of course, Salvation. In the period leading up to Easter, otherwise known as Lent, we have to give up something. Since I had no particular notable vices at this age I invariably plumped for chocolate. It’s surprising how much chocolate a child can acquire without actually spending any money, much by way of grandparents. By the time Easter arrived, I had usually accumulated a sizable stash: Mars bars, Marathons, Maltesers, Freddos, Wagon Wheels etc. I must admit the frustration of abstaining from these sweet delights was eased somewhat by the knowledge that I would soon be able to gorge on them to my hearts content. Apart from this relatively small personal sacrifice made in honour of Jesus, Lent also involved having to do the rather more emotionally harrowing Stations of the Cross. There are fourteen of these in all, and they are situated at regular intervals on the interiors walls of the church. Each station depicts a scene in Jesus’ life: from when he is sentenced to death leading up to when he is laid in the tomb. In our church, these scenes are depicted in attractive framed wooden carvings, with gold Roman numerals indicating the number of the Station. We, the class, would have to walk round the walls stopping at each station, where one of us gave a brief reading describing the scene. We would say a few prayers, and then move on to the next Station. Apart from our young hearts being wracked with sorrow at the story of Jesus’ crucifixion, it was also a physically painful experience having to stand around for ages in the freezing cold church - you could see your breath. All in all, it was quite an ordeal, which I suppose is fitting regarding the subject matter.
By the time it was time to leave school I surprisingly, ended up with nine ‘O’ levels. I’m not blowing my own trumpet here as they were fairly average Grades: two As, a couple of Bs and the rest were Cs. The As were in History and RE. I put the A in RE down to the Bible being all stories and parables, and I liked the poetical type verses (and perhaps my undercover childhood reading of the New Testament had not gone amiss either). At the time I found RE more interesting than English Literature (for which I got a Grade C), but having said that I did take English a year early. Much later, I decided to focus on English Literature at degree level, well I say ‘focus’ but my undergraduate degree was actually Joint Honours: English Literature with Physical Education and Sports Science. The trouble with me is that I tend to get enamoured with the subject I’m studying at the time: I had a love affair with ‘A’ level Sociology and a brief fling with ‘A’ level Psychology. However, when push came to shove I plumped for English Literature, and I think this was because at a theoretical level it encapsulates all of the aforementioned: Marxist/socialist/psychoanalytic/theological/feminist, whatever takes your fancy really.
At secondary school, nobody had planned on me getting so many ‘O’ levels. No one in my family had passed exams before. When the careers advisor had asked me what I wanted to do I said I wanted to win Wimbledon, but I knew this wasn’t really an option as we didn’t have the money. I was mad on Wimbledon as a child. Every year I used to make a scrapbook by cutting out pictures of the players and interviews in the newspapers. I remember how excited mum and I were watching Virginia Wade on the telly win the ladies title in 1977: the same year as Queen Elizabeth’s Silver Jubilee. I used to play tennis with my aunty in the park that was behind the factory that was across the road from our house. There were two hard tarmac tennis courts. For a small fee you could play for an hour, or for as long as you liked if nobody else was waiting. Apart from that, I used to spend hours practising by myself by hitting a tennis ball against the end factory wall from the car park. I was thrilled when I bought myself a proper metal-framed tennis racquet from the sports shop with my birthday money. So, strictly speaking I didn’t have a career path and when school ended I had no idea whatsoever what to do next. A couple of school friends had got jobs in offices, but I knew I didn’t want to do that. A few others were staying on at school in the sixth form to do ‘A’ levels, so I thought I might as well do that. At the time I had a part-time job at a local petrol station, where I worked a few evenings and weekends. I was also doing a lot of baby-sitting for relatives and neighbours, which was a good little earner, so I wasn’t short of money at all. My parents were alright with me staying on at school as I contributed a bit of money towards my board, and I was quite self-sufficient.
Hang on, hang on…don’t ever presume to know what’s coming next in my narrative, my life has more twists and turns than a bildsungsroman (and yes, I am on a quest). I was going to stay on at school and do some ‘A’ levels, but fate had other plans and decidedly stuck it’s oar in (and not for the last time) and divert me away from my studies. During the summer break before I was due to start sixth form I got a job working at the biscuit factory in the next town - they took on students on a temporary basis, and the pay was quite good. At the time I owned a 125cc motorbike, which I intended to get to work on. Incidentally, the motorbike was a talking point with many fellas who came into the petrol station where I worked. I ended up going on a few dates with one lad who had a BSA Bantam, a flat-top, and was into rockabilly music. He took me to a several rockabilly nights at local pubs and clubs. He and his mate would get up and dance; I was a bit reluctant but after a few drinks I gave it a whirl. He was nice enough but I decided that I wasn’t all that into rockabilly, or dancing for that matter.
Anyway, on the way to my new job at the biscuit factory, on the very first day, I was about five hundred yards from the factory gates, and in the process of negotiating a mini-roundabout on my motorbike, when a car suddenly pulled-out and hit me side-on. It was a woman driver. It was her fault. She said she didn’t see me. She was more distressed than I was even though she’d broken my leg and I was in agony. The ambulance came and once the paramedics had dealt with her they took me to hospital. It turned out that my tibia was broken. They put my leg in plaster from tip of toe to top of thigh, gave me a pair of crutches and sent me on my way. I was virtually immobile and house-bound for three months. When the plaster was finally removed I had one thin, pale and very hairy left leg. I had to go for hydrotherapy at the hospital to help me to walk properly again. By the way, all credit to the NHS, my leg has worked perfectly ever since, and it looks pretty good as well!
When I was eventually walking normally again I had missed the first term of sixth-form. Nevertheless, I thought I might as well give it a go and try and catch up, so I returned after the Christmas break. It was too late though, I had missed a lot of work and people had already formed their own little cliques, so I wasn’t enjoying it at all. It was around this time that I saw an advert in the local newspaper for a live-in working pupil at a riding school. The son of the proprietor was quite a well-known showjumper, and the advert said the pupil would receive riding tuition and training towards instructor exams (obviously downplaying all the hard work that would have to be done in return for the privilege). I wasn’t an experienced rider by any means, having only ever had a few riding lessons, so I thought it was a good opportunity. I applied for the position and got an interview. Next thing, I’m buying a grooming kit, hunter wellies and hacking jacket from Barretts of Feckenham, and packing my bags for the Vale of Belvoir.
After leaving school I went to work as a working-pupil at a riding school in the Vale of Belvoir. I lived-in which meant I got free food and lodgings, a very small monetary allowance and free riding lessons. In return, I had to look after several horses and give riding lessons. There were more or less six of us working-pupils. We all lived together in what was called the ‘bunk house’. It was really a (not very) glorified large shed. There was a living room, a small kitchen area, and a bedroom that was partitioned into six small spaces crammed with wardrobes and chests of draws, and just big enough to hold a single bed. It was really cold in the winter. Once, we had to be temporarily transferred to the guest rooms in the main house, in case we died of hypothermia while sleeping. At night, we had company. There were rats or mice running about, I can’t be more specific than that as I daren’t look. (On reflection, it was a really big health and safety issue to have our living quarters situated so close to the muck heap!) We were always busy. There was always something that had to be done: horses fed and watered, mucked-out, groomed and exercised, and tacked-up for riding lessons. In addition, we had to give and have riding lessons ourselves; as well as clean bridles and saddles; sweep the yard; rake the indoor school and outdoor menage and collect horse poo from the fields. It was a long and tiring day. We used to hack out in the woods around Belvoir Castle: such a lovely place! On one occasion, I was having a riding lesson in the indoor school when someone unexpectedly opened the massive metal sliding doors, and the horse I was on (the inconsiderate beast) seeing daylight decided to call it a day and bolted for freedom. My face caught the edge of one of the doors, and I was deposited on the unforgiving concrete ground. I looked like the elephant man for about six weeks after. We worked really hard. There just wasn’t time to watch the telly, and the internet hadn’t been invented. I got one day off a week. I went home and slept all day. I know what people mean when they say they were poor but happy. We were our own little community. A few years ago, when I felt sad, I went back to visit the riding school. I couldn’t find it. I remembered it was down a hill and on the left-hand side, just after the bend. I drove up and down the road a few times thinking my memory had got it wrong. Then I realised: there was a new housing development where the riding school used to be. It was all gone.
I stayed at the riding school for just over a year. It was intense, hard work. I got hurt: physically and emotionally. But I learnt so much. I turned out to be a proficient horse rider and ended up teaching my own riding lessons for people of all ages and abilities. On Saturdays a coach load of children would turn up for the day. They were split into three groups: novice, intermediate and advanced. I took the novice group. They were called novice but nearly all of them were pretty capable riders, being able to trot and do a bit of cantering unaided. I would take them for an hours riding lesson or a hack-out around the countryside, and then for an hour class-based tuition. They would then help out around the yard: filling up water buckets, raking the muck heap, cleaning tack etc. Once, we had an Open Day and the kids had to do a dressage to music for the public. I kept the routine pretty simple, and picked Jean-Michel Jarre’s Oxygene for them to do it to. It went really well and brought a tear to my eye. I have never been so proud. However, there is only so much one can learn. After a year at the riding school I was still working hard: harder than ever really, but I was still on the same pay, which was virtually nothing. Like I said before, we were a close knit little community, which made things more enjoyable. But as time went on people/friends left to go on to better positions, and suddenly things weren’t the same. I decided it was time for me to leave. The owners did try to persuade me to stay - I suppose hard-working staff, willing to work for next to nothing are hard to find. But I’d had enough. It was time to pack my bags. Looking back it was the best time, and a part of me wants to do that sort of work again.
I went home, to my parents’ house. Things were different though: I was different. This was no longer my world. I should be thankful that I did have somewhere to go, though. We should always have somewhere to go. I was a bit lost for while. The intensity of working six long days a week to doing absolutely nothing was a bit of a shock to the system. I suppose I needed to get acclimatized. You know, adapt, attune, and adjust.
I had a bit of a rest. Around this time I sold my motorbike and bought a three-wheeler Reliant Van. It was bright orange (!) I had already passed the motorbike test, and you were allowed to drive one of these on a motorbike licence - I always thought this rather odd as it’s just like driving a proper car. Anyway, after a few hair-raising episodes I soon became accustomed to driving it; I just needed to remember not to take bends too fast or you could tip over (which I never did). It was great fun, and a bit like being part of a club: whenever you saw another one on the road the driver would raise their hand to you in acknowledgement. At the time there were quite of these three-wheeler Reliants on the road, in fact we had a local garage which specifically dealt in them. They came in many different bright colours: orange, yellow, red, light blue - the forecourt was a proper picture to behold! For a while, I dated a guy who had one the same as mine only it was brown. He was a bit of a hippy. He had long hair and a beard, and a soppy black dog. He knew about Bob Dylan. We went on a few dates to pubs by canals. He lived with his elderly mother. Unbeknown to her he was growing cannabis in a makeshift greenhouse in the back garden. I didn’t know about this until I visited his home and he proudly showed me his cultivated crop, and swore me to secrecy. I wasn’t impressed. I was more than a little apprehensive. I didn’t know about drugs. I didn’t want to know. I needed my wits about me, not off on some magical mystery tour. I didn’t tell anyone, but that was basically it as far as our relationship went. But my love affair with my Reliant continued. I went all over the place, just for the sake of it most of the time. One Easter, my sister and I decided to go camping in Dovedale, Derbyshire. I threw the tent into the back of the van and off we went. It was a Bank Holiday weekend, the weather was glorious and the tourists were out in force. Anyone who is familiar with the Peak District will appreciate how hilly it is. So, we got stuck in a traffic jam on a really steep incline. My van’s poor little engine started to clank and vigorously smoke in protest of the effort, and, embarrassingly, we had to get help to push it off the road as we were causing an obstruction on an already congested highway. Thankfully, after a short reprieve it was fine and we continued on our merry little way. I didn’t keep the Reliant for all that long, having aspirations for bigger and better modes of transport. However, I gained invaluable experience driving it around and when I took my car test I passed first time, no problem. The thing with Reliants is that they have fibreglass bodies and don’t rust, and they generally keep their value, so I had no trouble selling it when I advertised it in the local paper… and I got all my money back. Nowadays, three-wheeler Reliants are a rarity on the roads but I occasionally catch sight of one, and when I do it always brings a smile to my face.
Around this time I started exercising a big (16.2hh) grey coloured horse. It came about because one of my aunts was friendly with a local farmer’s wife. The farmer did a bit of hunting and cross-country, nothing very serious, just for the fun of it really. He was ‘in’ with the hunting crowd. He was looking for someone to exercise his horse and get it fit for the forthcoming season, and my aunt mentioned me. The farm was only about a mile from where I lived, so I agreed to do it. Basically, I had to go to the farm every morning and ride the horse for an hour or two. I didn’t get paid, but I was okay with that. I was able to ride all over the farm land and hack-out around our village, and as the farm was situated close to the monastery I was allowed to go there also. It was a relaxed and enjoyable arrangement. I found the horse a bit hard going though, he was rather lazy and had a hard mouth, so once you eventually got him going he was hard to stop. I personally prefer something a bit friskier: something you have to hold back rather than kick on. But the horse was a safe ride and excellent in traffic. It was here that I got the opportunity to go hunting. The farmer, as a Christmas gift, let me go out with the Boxing Day Meet. I borrowed a black hunting jacket and a stock from his brother’s wife, who was about the same size as me. The hunt met in Loughborough, on Market Street right outside the Town Hall. There was a large turn out and a crowd had gathered to watch. It was quite a spectacle. Someone brought round a hot toddy, which went straight to my head and put an uncontrollable grin on my face. It turned out to be a magical day. This was before people became so anti-hunting: it is illegal nowadays, of course. At the time, I had heard of the hunt protestors but I never saw any. I went out ‘cubbing’ a couple of times as well. This happens in the autumn, pre-hunting season, and is a bit slower paced when the horses and hounds aren’t so fit. I have seen hounds catch onto a foxes scent and chase it, but I can honestly say I never witnessed hounds tearing a fox to bits or even getting hold of one for that matter. But that’s not to say it didn’t happen, of course. I never did it for blood-lust anyway; it was just a great opportunity to have a gallop around the countryside with a few acquaintances, jumping over fences and hedges. The farmer himself was easy going and didn’t put any pressure on me; I suppose he was just grateful for someone to exercise his horse. He had a brilliant Border collie bitch, which was just so obedient and affectionate, and followed him everywhere. She had a litter of pups and the farmer kept one for himself - it was just the cutest little animal. I remember, one morning I went to the barn to get the horse ready, and found the farmer there clutching a small bundle in his hands. He was quite upset, and looked like he he’d been crying. He told me that the pup had been sleeping next to the horse and the horse had inadvertently squashed it. The pup was dead. I was quite upset myself.
I got fed up with exercising other people’s horses and having no money. Mr…’s daughter was the same age as me, but she didn’t work. She would just turn up at the stables in the morning if she fancied going out for a hack. She had a boyfriend and they would go off for days on end, to who knows where. I decided to get a job at the biscuit factory in the next town. You know the one where I was going to work a few years back but fate intervened. Well this time I ended up working the night shift. They were 10 hour shifts. A continental shift system was in operation, which meant you worked three nights on and four nights off, then four nights on and three nights off (something like that) I figured this would give me time to pursue my other interests, and more importantly the pay was relatively good - much more money than I’d ever earned before anyway. People had warned me against working at the biscuit factory, saying it was a horrible place and like slave-labour. But I thought if I didn’t like it I could just leave, so I gave it a go. I didn’t find it all that bad actually. Besides, I had ulterior motivation: I wanted to buy my own horse.
Work at the biscuit factory was tedious and mind-numbingly repetitive, but doable. You had to stand facing a long conveyor belt down which travelled, at a fair pace, 8-10 rows of biscuits (I was on the chocolate biscuit line – yummy, and yes, we did eat them). As the biscuits went by you had to take hold of a packet sized quantity and place them in the moving oblong metal slots of the wrapping machine, which was situated by the side of you. Basically, that was it. You did this all night long. But you had to do it fast, while making sure you filled every slot, and with the correct amount of biscuits. If you didn’t the supervisor would yell: ‘Fill yer holes up!’ You weren’t allowed to talk, but that was pretty difficult anyway as the machines were loud and you really had to concentrate. Something often went wrong, such as the conveyor belt or the wrapping machine breaking down, or there could be quality control issues with the biscuits. When this happened we’d give a small cheer in unison and make the most of the moment’s respite. We had 40 minutes break for dinner, when the belt was temporarily stopped and we all marched up to the canteen. We also had shorter, random five minutes breaks which were called ‘nips’ - ‘Do you want to go for your nip, Sue?’ Here, someone relieved you while you went to the toilet or for a quick fag. I did this job for about a year. During this time I left home again. I rented a room in a large Victorian house, mainly because it was conveniently situated just around the corner from the factory. There were two other women living in the house, including the owner, but I rarely saw them due to my unsociable working hours. I had finished with Mr… and the hunters, but I was still exercising the big grey horse for the farmer. After work, I would go to the farm and ride out for an hour or so, before returning to the house and going to bed for the rest of the day. However, this routine wasn’t to continue for much longer as something unpleasant happened down on the farm which made me not want to go there any more.
Rupert Bear, The New Testament, Enid Blyton, Agatha Christie, Thomas Hardy, Graham Greene - this is a reading list; it represents my childhood texts, and they are in chronological order. Perhaps the discerning reader will observe the lack of canonical writers and books. Frankly, my family was lacking in literary or bookish people in any shape or form, so there was no one to encourage or direct my reading in order to cultivate my knowledge and intellect. It was just something I did. On the other hand, no one was actually against my reading, as is apparent in the young lives of some working-class women autobiographers. In fact, I do remember my mum reading me bedtime stories when I was very young.
Rupert Bear: Every Christmas I would get a Rupert Bear annual. I loved them: hard-back covers, beautifully illustrated pictures, and stories in rhyming couplets. At one point I had quite a collection. I recently saw some similar editions at a toy fair, which were selling for around £200 each! A similar thing happened with my action man collection. My grandmother (nanna, as she was more commonly known) used to work at the Palitoy factory in Coalville. Consequently, my sister and I would be showered with a plethora of fantastic toys at Christmas, including the aforementioned Action Man: talking ones, ones with gripping hands, ones with ‘real’ hair’, ones with beards, etc., not to mention a multitude of Action Man accessories: carded outfits, helicopters, tanks, jeeps, rafts, etc. - you name it we got it. A few years ago, I noticed that original items like these had multiplied in value. I subsequently recovered a few of the childhood treasures from my dad’s loft, but unfortunately he had given most of them away. I racked my brains and had a good think about what kind of present day toys might be the antiques of the future. The outcome of this was that I gathered a collection of gaming consoles: Telesports (2 rectangular bats that move vertically up and down the telly screen), Sega Master System, Sega Megadrive, Playstation One and Two. I still have these. I’m patiently waiting for them to become antiques; however, I appreciate that I may be dead by that time and therefore unable to reap the fruits of my foresight.
The New Testament: I started reading the New Testament at primary school age. We had visitors to the school, and they gave each pupil a red leather-bound Gideons New Testament pocket Bible. However, I didn’t read it because I was instructed to do so, or out of some kind of religious devotion: I read it in bed under my sheets at night because I thought our house was haunted, and I was scared. Well, this ghost: it wasn’t like a malevolent manifestation (there was no moving of furniture or unearthly wailing; it was more like a lonely spirit who wanted a playmate. Whatever it was, it certainly gave me the heebie-jeebies. Nowadays, I don’t believe in the supernatural. I think everything has a rational explanation, and the mind can play strange tricks. However, at that time my child’s mentality basically perceived that I was being harassed by a ghost and I was frightened, so much so that I said prayers and read the New Testament in a desperate effort to ward it off. I try to take something positive from all my experiences, and I think I learnt two valuable lessons here: firstly, the New Testament taught me that we all have our crosses to bear; and secondly, the unearthly entity taught me that we have to learn to live with our ghosts. Thankfully, that didn’t go on too long, and the problem was resolved when my family and I moved house (which had nothing to do with my spectre). This is the end of the story for this particular personal haunting; however, since we left I have heard of two separate significant events that happened to other residents of the house, which fit in well with my ghost story. I would like to elaborate but this is not the place: the house is still there and there are people living in it.
Enid Blyton: Around the same time as the ‘haunting’ I was rooting around the closet one day when I found some of my mum’s old possessions (no pun intended). There was a red and cream Dansette mono record player, and a red leather bag crammed with single vinyl records (45s they were). I digress, but I have to mention this because I spent many a happy hour playing it: Cliff Richard (Summer Holiday), Elvis Presley (Anne-Marie’s the Name), Tommy Steele (Little White Bull), the Everley Brothers (‘Till I kissed you), Little Eva (The Locomotion), Connie Francis (Lipstick on Your Collar), and many others. All classics and greats!! Where on earth is it now? I, unfortunately, have no idea. Back in the day my mum and dad were rock n’ rollers. To my acute embarrassment, I have seen them rockin’ and rollin’, but I suppose they were quite good.
Enid Blyton: In the closet, I also found a blue-coloured hard-backed book, entitled Five on a Treasure Island. I read it and loved it. Consequently, my Enid Blyton phase begins. I was lucky in that this is the first in the Famous Five series: the one where siblings Anne, Dick and Julian first meet their tom-boy cousin George and her dog Timmy. They all drink lashings of ginger beer, and go off and have their very first adventure together. After I had devoured all the Famous Five books, I went on to the Secret Seven series. After this, to my even greater pleasure, I discovered the Blyton books which are set in girls’ public schools, such as the Malory Towers and St. Clares series: wealthy, angst teenage girls, midnight feasts and lacrosse - what’s not to like! At the time, my mum got her housekeeping money from dad on a Friday afternoon, after he finished work. Once she had been able to drag it out of him, we went to do the weekly grocery shop at the Fine Fare supermarket in town. To my delight, they sold paperback Enid Blyton’s, so every week my mum would let me put one in the shopping trolley. This really was exciting for me, and something I looked forward to every week. One day, my aunty mentioned that she had a book about a girls’ school, and I could have it if I wanted. I wasn’t very hopeful, but I thought there was no harm in having a look. As it happens, it was about a girls’ school, but it was also a murder story; it was Agatha Christie’s Cat Amongst the Pigeons! Goodbye Enid Blyton; hello Agatha Christie.
Agatha Christie: Totally enthralled by Cat Amongst the Pigeons, I subsequently began to make my way through the rest of Agatha Christie’s murder mysteries. I can even remember the title of the second one I ever read: Dead Man’s Folly. It is remarkable, and a credit to Christie’s writing, that I was never able to correctly guess the murderer, and it took great strength of character not to turn to last chapter to have a quick look, before the culprit was elaborately revealed by the brilliant sleuth at the end. I am a big fan of both of Christie’s legendary sleuth incarnations, but I must admit I prefer Miss Marple to Hercule Poirot. I remember being totally shocked and somewhat disappointed when Poirot reveals himself to be the murderer in his last case. Fortunately, I read this novel way down the list, so it didn’t hamper my enjoyment of his other investigations. I particularly like the Miss Marple stories when the foul play happens in the little quaint village of St Mary Mead, where she lives. Miss Marple innocently goes around her unguarded neighbours and engages them in conversation, weedling out all the gossip and dirt on her fellow inhabitants, while all the time her detective-like intellect is taking it all in and is not being fooled by anybody. Before I discovered the Miss Marple books, I used to enjoy watching the old black and white films on television, such as Murder Most Foul and Murder at the Gallop. In these, Margaret Rutherford’s Miss Marple character wonderfully blusters and blunders her way to the truth, with comic effects. However, as the books are not funny at all I was a bit confused at first. Fairly recently, there have been several interesting television adaptions of Miss Marple’s cases. She has been depicted in a variety of ways, ranging from tall, thin, and serious with piercing blue eyes to the more jolly and rounded, smiley and kindly type. But for me, none have managed to capture the essence and the charm of the Miss Marple of the books. I have also seen several Agatha Christie plays at the theatre, but I can’t remember them all. I do remember the seats were very uncomfortable at one performance, and it was quite a challenge to go the distance of the play. One play I saw does stick in my memory, though. This is when I went to see The Verdict at a small sea-front theatre in Sherringham. This play is memorable because the leading lady ridiculously over-acted, and as I was sitting on the front row I spent the whole performance agonisingly trying to keep a straight face. Of course, Agatha Christie’s most famous play, and London’s longest running is The Mousetrap. I haven’t seen this yet, so I look forward to doing so sometime in the future. I still have a number of Agatha Christie paperbacks on my bookshelf at home, so I also look forward to re-reading these at some point; I bet I still don’t guess the murderer.
Thomas Hardy: My interest in the novels of Thomas Hardy began when I saw the film Tess of the D’Urbervilles on the television. Peasants, desolate landscapes, thwarted passions, brooding men and tragic heroines are right up my street, and Stonehenge features in it as well. As a child I had always been fascinated by Stonehenge, ever since the time we drove by it in the car coming back from I don’t remember where. I had not even heard of Stonehenge before, so you can imagine how enthralled I was to unexpectedly catch sight of the enormous stones incongruously erect on the flat landscape of Salisbury Plain. We pulled into the public car park, and treated ourselves to a flying impromptu visit. At the time, the public were actually allowed to walk around the site, and touch the ancient monoliths. There were lots of tourists, particularly Americans, who were posing for photos and playing hide and seek between the Sarcens, not to mention climbing all over the huge horizontal alter stone. I’m not sure whether this is permitted nowadays, or whether the site has been fenced off out of public reach. Anyhow, this film, Tess of The D’Urbervilles, which features Stonehenge, inspired me to read the novel of the same name. I consequently started to seek out more of Hardy’s novels, which were not difficult to find in the local library. In several of the novels, the protagonists are lower-class women who generally desire something more than their impoverished backgrounds can give them, and they invariably meet a sticky demise. This sounds somewhat like a thematic precursor to my much later academic interest in working-class women’s writing; however, at the time I was merely reading books for pleasure. This was long before I found out that Hardy is one of our greatest writers and part of the literary canon, which I discovered when I studied Return of the Native for my English Literature A-level. My memory of looking for Thomas Hardy novels in my local public library has made me realize that my breadth of reading at the time was greater than I originally recall. For instance, I can definitely remember borrowing Virginia Woolf’s To The Lighthouse and Mrs Dalloway, and also George Orwell’s Animal Farm. Little was I to know that years later these writers would inform and play a significant part of my postgraduate research: Woolf because she is a prolific writer and a feminist icon - who has not read ‘A Room of One’s Own’ in their first year as an undergraduate? - and Orwell for entirely different reasons, but mainly because of his non-fiction journalistic excursions into the lives of the lower classes in The Road to Wigan Pier and Down and Out in Paris and London.
To cut a long story short: