This is my school photo aged seven. As you can see, school uniform wasn't strictly enforced. I am wearing one of the dresses my mother made.
Maths had always been a problem for me and things did not get any better when I returned to school after a long absence with measles. During the time I was recovering my class had been taught how to use decimals. Maths had been bad enough beforehand, but now the zeros didn't necessarily mean that the numbers got bigger. Depending on where this new little dot was placed, the zeros could go in front and meant that numbers got smaller. There really was no hope.
The previous September had brought our move up to the junior school and the boundaries of ‘allowed’ expanded even further. Now our break and lunchtimes were spent in the big junior playground. Three sides of the tarmac were surrounded by buildings. The classroom windows were only separated from the playground by a narrow colonnade with round green metal uprights and the staff room overlooked our activities. There were fewer places for hide and seek than in the infants' playground, but there was a good deal more space for running and for really good skipping or ball games. Sadly the move meant there was almost no windowless brick wall area for playing two ball. The current craze was for hula hoops which really did need a lot of space and could only safely be indulged outside. Even in a large playground, it was difficult to avoid barging into somebody and being yelled at for interrupting their attempt to reach 100 hulas when they had just got to 92!
Ever since I had been taken to see a film of the Bolshoi Ballet’s production of Swan Lake starring Galina Ulanova, ballet had become the main thought in my life. I looked for every possible opportunity to dance. I knew that the school had its own record player because Miss Wyneken would often play music for us during assembly.
School hall - taken 2008
Sitting cross-legged on the shiny parquet floor on warm mornings, with the double doors open to the tiny rose garden at the front of the school, we would listen to music like Smetana’s ‘Vltava’. I knew that ballet music often told a story but until that point, I hadn't realised that people wrote music to express a feeling or to describe something.
It didn't take me long to make the connection between use of the school record player in the big hall and the opportunity to dance. Miss Wyneken gave the junior school girls permission to use the hall for dancing during lunchtime, but only when a teacher was available to change the records. The records were made of very brittle plastic which broke if dropped and which scratched easily if the record player’s needle wasn’t placed carefully at the beginning of the disc. As Tchaikovsky’s ‘Swan Lake’ and ‘Sleeping Beauty’ played we would twirl and leap, imagining ourselves to be ballerinas. Periodically the boys would crowd by the hall windows and make fun of us until they were shooed away by the dinner ladies. The staff room was in the corridor just across from the hall and at odd intervals, a teacher would stop by to watch us. I really didn’t care. I had no idea whether I danced well or badly, I was totally caught up in the moment, carried along by the music.
Dancing in lesson time was often less than enjoyable. Now and then, instead of PE, we would have what was called ‘country dancing’ classes and I’m not sure quite how to describe the kind of dances we were taught. They were a little like barn dances and had names like ‘Sir Roger de Coverley’. Each girl would be partnered with a boy and put into a mixed group of six or eight, depending on the dance. Now I am a great believer in the notion that everyone can dance – in their own way. However, not everyone can follow the strict order of a series of steps nor can they necessarily adjust their movements to the tempo of the music they can hear. Least of all did most of the boys in my class have any sense that partner work was a team effort. Some would dash ahead of the music swinging me wildly to keep up with them. The less confident would constantly move in the wrong direction, keep checking their feet and freeze in panic at any shouted corrections from our teacher. I’ve no doubt that dancing was a real chore for many of the boys, and they always made a great fuss about having to hold hands with girls.
When we moved up to the junior school we were taken out on trips. Several times we went to the Library Theatre in Manchester. Visits to the Library Theatre were particularly exciting because we travelled on a coach and we were allowed to take sweets with us. After one production, we spent a lot of time in our classroom making our own little set designs in cardboard boxes. Those were the kinds of creative activities I really missed when I went to grammar school.
When school returned after the long summer holiday Mr Culley became our class teacher and I moved into my last carefree year at Queens Road. Mr Culley’s class was a comfortable place to be and he was my favourite of all my teachers at primary school. He was very tall but not in the least bit frightening. He was strict but he didn't need to shout. My parents really liked him too. The end of one of his fingers was missing and, as he was much the same age as my parents, perhaps that happened during the war. I never asked him.
In junior school, our lessons became much more formal. We were learning cursive handwriting, joining our letters together as we formed our words. A note came home for our parents requesting that we be provided with a fountain pen and I was presented with a Platignum pen – multicoloured barrel with a silver top that slid on and off. There was school ink available but it was a very drab colour and a bit watery. I much preferred Royal Blue, made by Quink. Loading the pen with ink was a messy business. There was a little lever on the side of its barrel which I lifted and inserted the nib into the ink bottle. As I slowly dropped the lever the pen filled with ink. Somehow the ink never just went into my pen. I always seemed to have inky fingers and I seemed to get through a lot of blotting paper only a little of which was used to dry my writing. One of the boys had a pen that loaded ink by repeatedly pressing a button. I wished I had a pen like that. His hands always seemed clean. Pencils were now only to be used for our rough workings. We started to have regular homework too. It was all preparation for our next move into top class. That was when we would take the exams which would decide our future secondary school.
Luckily there was still space in our days for all sorts of creative activities. We spent some time making hand puppets. We started by building the heads from balls of newspaper covered by papier mache, with a roll of cardboard for the neck. The papier-mache was applied using wallpaper paste in several layers, each of which had to be allowed time to dry properly. Then we painted on the skin colour, attached wool for the hair and made their costumes. When all that was finished we worked in groups and created plays for our characters. Mine was a witch. I think my puppet’s character was decided by the distorted shape of the head I had created; also the thick green paint that I used to colour her face masked the bits of newsprint I hadn’t covered properly. Finally, we performed our plays in front of the school using a puppet theatre that Mr Culley had borrowed.
Stories were still an important part of our school life. The final half-hour of our day always ended with our teacher reading aloud another chapter from our current book. ‘The Wheel on the School’ was a story about Dutch children who wanted a stork to nest on their pointed roofed school. The only way they could achieve this was to find an old cartwheel and hoist it on to the school’s spire. I couldn’t quite see the point of it all and I was glad when we moved on from that to ‘The Silver Sword’. It was the story of a group of children trying to escape from war-torn Europe – much more exciting. I loved ‘Tom Sawyer’, although I only really appreciated Mark Twain’s wonderful sense of humour when I read the book for myself many years later.
At the end of each day, my parents could happily allow me to walk home from my primary school with all the other children, crossing several roads in the process because there were so few cars. I didn't have to navigate what we called ‘the main road’ (Cheadle Road) and even if I had, the lovely Mrs Ede, our lollipop lady, was there to see us safely over. This makes my parents sound casual about my well-being. They weren't. Times were just easier and the world really was a less hazardous place than the one my children and grandchildren know. It was why the horrific stories of the Moors murderers caused such a terrible shock when they became public. The term serial killer did not exist then. It is commonplace now.
That summer I did indeed learn to ride a bicycle - my own bicycle which arrived for my birthday. It was bright blue and almost new because its previous owner had grown faster than anticipated. When it arrived at the flats it had to be fitted with block pedals - I still had some growing to do. I might not require training wheels, but I still wasn't allowed to ride my bike on the main road or to take it to school. There was only a very small bike shed at school and the spaces were allocated for children who rode in from a distance.
Summertime was definitely the best season. Summertime brought my birthday and opened our world of play. Summer was the time when nobody needed to wear a coat, when a sweater could be tied around a boy’s shoulders as a knight’s cape or a cardigan knotted around a girl’s middle as a ball gown. Summer was the time when girls tucked their skirts into their knickers and showed off doing cartwheels or handstands. The big grass cutters would arrive on the back of an open lorry and race around the school field churning the long grass to soft stubble. The whisper of their appearance would spread across the classroom and the growl of their machines robbed our work of any real attention. As soon as we could we ran on to the field and spent our lunch hour creating grassy dens, battling each other for the sweet-smelling cuttings which we scooped up and piled into fortifications. A few of the boys had discovered that certain types of grass heads could be formed into very effective weapons of torture. Once the seeds had been scraped free it left a long stem with a sticky end. The end could then be dropped onto a girl's hair, twisted rapidly and with one pull gratifying amounts of hair were yanked free. The screams were a bonus.
Summertime PE lessons meant games of rounders, played with a tennis ball to avoid accidents of all kinds. Actually, I don’t think most of us could have hit a real rounders ball further than a few feet or willingly have caught something so hard whilst it was travelling at speed. The end of the summer term was the time for sports day. Prizes for the different events, (including wooden-handled skipping ropes for girls or cricket balls for boys) were laid out on a table and eyed excitedly by the contestants. My most painful memory of those days is of taking part in the wheelbarrow race. One partner in each pair was the runner and they held the other (barrow) partner’s feet. The ‘barrow’ scampered along as quickly as they could on their hands trying to keep pace with the runner. Unfortunately, I had been paired with a very tall girl. She strode forward and as my frantically whirling arms could not keep pace I was driven, nose first, into the ground. I was told off first of all by my teacher for crying and then by my partner for being useless. My partner in the three-legged race was much more fun. I’m not even sure if we finished, we were giggling so much that we couldn’t run in a straight line.