2014 in review

The WordPress.com stats helper monkeys prepared a 2014 annual report for this blog.

Here’s an excerpt:

A San Francisco cable car holds 60 people. This blog was viewed about 770 times in 2014. If it were a cable car, it would take about 13 trips to carry that many people.

Click here to see the complete report.

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Nil Desperandum

Failure:  look straight into its eyes;

Inhale its scent so pungent, sick and stale;

Move on and try again: head for the skies,

With all endeavour we must sometimes fail.

The weak abandon hope when first refused,

The faint of heart will never try at all;

The arrogant will feel as if abused,

The hopeless will anticipate the fall.

While in the depths look upward to the heights,

Let them seduce, entice, draw you away

From that mired hell, to heaven and beyond;

The darkness bows in fear before the brilliant day.

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I wrote this poem to describe how we can leave trauma behind us and move on to embrace a brighter future.


The past is always present.
It frames our future.
We cannot change it;
Its grip is merciless.
But we can challenge its legacy,
Defeat and triumph over it,
Absorb the sweetness and the hope,
Translate the bad into the brilliant,
The mediocre to the amazing.
Refuse to hide:
Face the fearsome, frantic fight,
Tread the dark path that leads through brambles
Laced with puddles and potholes,
That ultimately brings us into sunlight:
The Future.

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Chapter 3 Maudie and Mary Ann
My parents grew up only a few miles apart; my father in the rough back streets of Luton, and my mother in rural, pretty Leagrave. Both lost their fathers when they were young, for different reasons, and their mothers raised their children in poverty. For the working classes the early twentieth century was a pitiless period , long before the advent of the Welfare State. Despite their poverty, both mothers had aspirations for their children. Grandmother Darby wanted my father to have a good education and learn to play the piano, something unheard of in their slum area. Grandma West wanted my mother to be a lady, speak correctly, dress with elegance, and raise herself out of their struggling community.
My grandfathers were not good role models. One died from syphilis, and the other, a philanderer, deserved the same.
Alfred West was born in 1878, one of four brothers brought up in Chesham, then a village in Buckinghamshire. When he left school at twelve he was apprenticed to a bootmaker, then became a stable groom, and finally a sewing machine salesman.

After two years Alfred was promoted to the role of assistant superintendent. He spent much of his time on the road, selling machines to housewives and small companies, virtual sweatshops. One of his duties was to collect weekly payments from the women who either rented their machines, or were buying them on hire purchase, ‘on tick’ or ‘the glad and sorry’ – glad to have the item, sorry that it needed payment.
Alfred was the ideal salesman. Tall, handsome, courteous and friendly, with dark hair and eyes and a ready smile. He was also a Lothario. It was during his travels that he met the inexperienced, trusting Maudie Fisher, a tiny, delicately built girl, with a mop of curly hair which she brushed back severely. She was working as a servant at one of the big houses he visited. When he met and courted unworldly Maudie , she fell in love at once. He was twenty-seven when they married, while she was two years younger. Her naivety allowed Alfred to seduce her, so that by the time they married, Maudie was pregnant.
Maudie might have dreamed of a long and happy marriage, but she was destined to be a widow before she was forty, and to watch her husband die in excruciating pain.

It is likely that Alfred caught syphilis sometime before he married Maudie. Statistics show that the most probable time for a man to become infected is between the ages of twenty and twenty-nine, when he is at his most sexually active. The first symptom of this terrible disease, a chancre or sore on the genitals, rectum or mouth, lasts only a few weeks before healing spontaneously. Usually, no ill-effects are felt, so there is a good chance that the sore might be overlooked. The contagious period is over within a few months, then it enters a dormant phase which might last for several years before destroying every organ in the body, including the brain.
At the time of her marriage in 1905, Maudie knew nothing of Alfred’s condition, nor would she have been aware that such a disease existed. It is unlikely that Alfred knew he had syphilis, or that an early, agonising death awaited him. He had certainly ignored the transitory symptoms, not realising their significance. But as any cure for the disease was still largely controversial and experimental, recognition of his condition might not have helped him.

Within three years Maudie had given birth to two sons. By this time the family had moved from London to Leagrave, a village on the outskirts of Luton, where Alfred worked as a salesman and collector for another sewing machine company, Quarry MFS.
In 1911 it became clear that Alfred was suffering from some puzzling complaint. His family became alarmed at his symptoms. Grandma West always kept her silence, but in later years, Jim, the eldest son, spoke of the fear he had felt at watching his father’s gradual loss of control over both temper and body. Alfred’s muscles began to weaken as locomotor ataxia, or syphilis of the spinal cord, set in. He found it difficult to walk, staggering round in pain, with an unco-ordinated lumbering gait. But it is doubtful that his illness was diagnosed at that stage. Although syphilis was far more prevalent than today, little was understood about its progression. It is often termed ‘the great imitator’ as many of its symptoms are indistinguishable from other diseases.
Alfred went on to father two daughters, my mother Violet, and Lily, before he became too weak to stir from bed. He lay there, helpless and incontinent, and then the disease moved inexorably to attack his brain, causing irrational rage and confusion.
My mother was born in 1912, and she remembers being terrified of his ugly moods as his pain became more intense. Around that time the doctor became aware of the nature of his illness, for his death certificate states that locomotor ataxia had been present for six years. The length of time he had suffered from the earlier stages of syphilis was open to conjecture, for the doctor who certified death, had also written ‘specific disease’ with a large question mark next to ‘years’. The shock for my gentle grandmother must have been tremendous, but she rallied in her quiet, determined way and nursed Alfred to the end.
And the end was bitter. The pain intensified yet further as his death grew nearer. His body became totally ulcerated and his limbs lost all power. My grandmother did not reveal the true nature of his illness to her children, then or ever. The shame was too great and also she may have feared having the disease.
Jim, the eldest West child, was ten when Alfred died. His torture over, his body was placed in a coffin in the parlour, to lie there until his funeral a week later. Grandma told her children that their father had kidney failure, which doubtless he did as death approached. None of the children ever knew the truth, until Lily, out of curiosity, sent for his death certificate more than fifty years later. Ironically, she was not so much shocked as irritated that the truth had been kept from them. By that time her brothers and sister were dead, so she could not share the discovery.
It is difficult to know whether there were any generic health implications. Grandma West was nearly seventy-seven when she died, but that does not mean she had not contracted syphilis, as in some cases it can cure itself. Alcohol probably hastened Jim’s demise . He died at the age of seventy-three. He also seemed healthy for most of his life. However, the second son, Titch, died from kidney failure at the age of forty-four. My mother, Violet, was physically ill, and also vulnerable to emotional stability, for much of her adult life. Lily, the youngest, lived to a very healthy old age and died in 2004, at the age of ninety.
It would seem that only the middle two of the four West children suffered ill-health, Uncle Titch and my mother. On this evidence it seems unlikely but not impossible, that syphilis played any part.
With Alfred’s death in 1917, Maudie faced serious problems. She was not afraid of hard work, but a job outside the home and young children were incompatible. Her brother-in-law, Sid, offered a solution: he would take baby Lily into his home and bring her up with his daughter. Sid and his wife were even prepared to adopt Lily.
Maudie could not accept the thought of losing her daughter permanently. She would accept their kind offer, on several provisos. There was to be no adoption, even though adoption up to 1926 was an informal affair, the birth parents able to demand their child back at any time. Lily must never forget that her real mother was Maudie, and the visits between Leagrave and Chesham must be frequent. Finally, Grandma insisted that as soon as she could afford the arrangement to come to an end, Lily must be returned home. This was agreed, but Lily never returned to the house in Leagrave, except as a visitor. She became deeply attached to her aunt and uncle, and it was decided that it would have been cruel to uproot her again.
Although Grandma suffered through losing her daughter, this kind of arrangement was common at the time. There was no benefit system to protect against poverty, and so relatives and friends would take on the child of a bereaved parent, or the illegitimate child of a young, impoverished mother, and raise the child as their own.
Throughout the years that followed, Grandma and Sid kept to their word. Each week, they took it in turns to make the bus journey to and from Chesham or Leagrave, some twenty miles. Grandma must have taken comfort from the fact that Lily was happy, for it had broken her heart to part with her three-year daughter-old daughter, her youngest child. But she was a stoical woman, who accepted the inevitable. She had no chance of working and looking after Lily. The other children could go to school, and if they missed their little sister at first, they were young, and other matters quickly occupied their minds. And Maudie was much too sensitive and generous a mother to allow them to see her distress.
Hardship for Maudie was the norm, but her fragile appearance hid a determined strength. She had lived through some terrible years, nursing her husband, never understanding what had changed the easy going man into an irrational monster. Maudie worked hard, cleaning the homes of the rich in the area, proving her worth to her employers. She also could sew, and doubtless made good use of the sewing machine Alfred would certainly have acquired for her, free of charge, in his working days. By making herself invaluable, she always made sure she had plenty of employment, so that her children were well-fed and warmly clothed. When Jim and Titch left school, life became easier, as they brought their weekly wages home.
As Grandma had refused to break contact with her daughter, she was never to experience the shock my mother received when seeing her daughter for the first time six years after her birth. The decision my mother made to give up her child must have been coloured by the fact that her sister Lily had been happy, despite being removed from the immediate family environment, and Grandma had also appeared content to the young, self-absorbed Violet. It is interesting to note, however, that my mother never told Grandma about the adoption of her seventh child and made numerous excuses not to see her during the months when the pregnancy was evident.
As she grew up Violet, was indulged. She was the only girl at home, spoilt by mother and brothers. A photograph of her, taken at the age of fourteen, suggests an air of quiet confidence, as if she is aware of her looks, knowing she is admired. Her hair is fashionably bobbed to below her ears, a dark, shining cap with a natural wave. She is unsmiling, her lips firm. The jaw is strong, giving a hint of her wilful personality. But her eyes are dark and vulnerable, underlining the complexity of her nature.
This was the age of the professional family photograph, a symbol of pride among the poor. This picture is not the only one of the young Violet. Other photographs followed at regular intervals, and in each she is exquisitely dressed and groomed. Grandma’s aspirations for her daughter are clearly revealed.
When she was a little girl Violet dreamt of becoming an actress. Grandma taught her to be well-spoken at a time when accent was one factor that separated the rich from the poor. She also taught her to recite poems. Two of these were My Two Dollies, and The Naughty Kittens, ingrained on my memory, as in later years, my mother made Jill and me learn them, too.
Grandma encouraged Violet to look smart, and often brought home clothes outgrown by the daughter of one of the families she cleaned for. These were all of excellent quality, but my mother objected strongly to Grandma insisting that she wore one of these gifts, a three cornered hat. Violet did not wear that hat for long, for she always got her way. A psychiatrist told me that she would have absorbed the fact that her father’s rage and tantrums brought immediate positive response at an age when she would not have realised why.
Violet rarely considered the consequences of her actions, for she quickly learned that there were usually none. As a small child I would listen in awe when she told me that. Grandma would remonstrate, ‘Oh Violet, how could you!’ but her tone was always too gentle to excite fear of repercussion. Jim tried to take on parental authority but she was much too bright and devious to succumb to that. She told me when I was thirteen, that her mother and Jim forbade her to bleach her beautiful dark, curly hair when she was the same age. She listened to them gravely, then went out into their tiny scullery and dyed her hair to a brassy blonde. I held my breath. ‘Did you get into terrible trouble?’
My mother laughed. ‘Of course not.’
Ironically, she would have beaten her own children black and blue for such defiance, followed by another good hiding when my father came home.
One of my mother’s problems was this lack of correction. She knew that tantrums and defiance usually brought her what she wanted. My grandmother was vulnerable where her daughter was concerned. She missed her daughter, Lily, mourning the fact that economic necessity had caused her to part with her three-year-old, and Violet received the love and attention meant for two daughters.
At school Violet knew she was popular, confident, good at netball, envied for her looks. She was tall, and held herself straight and with poise. But even at that age there were signs that her health was not perfect. One Saturday, at the age of twelve, she was playing in a school netball match, when she fainted. As she came round she heard a confident American accent. ‘I’ll take Violet home in my car. Mildred has been wanting to make a friend of her for some time.’ Mildred Stott was easily the wealthiest girl in the school. An only child, she was given everything she wanted, and was the envy of the class. Her American nationality gave her a glamour and mystery. It was doubtful if any of the pupils knew anyone else from outside the British Isles. A friendship began between the two girls, which lasted many years, and it is easy to see how the impressionable Violet began to want things that Mildred took for granted. Most of the girls in the class wanted Violet for their friend. But when Mildred appeared on the scene, Violet wanted her company alone. It was a friendship encouraged by Grandma. Mildred was part of a class she wanted her daughter to join.
In 1926, when she was fourteen, Violet left school as was the norm for the times. She began work in an office, showing skill in book-keeping. This brought her promotion with an even greater sense of her own importance. But what mattered most to her, was that she had money to spend as she wished. Life began to be exciting. The attention from the men she worked with was flattering and enjoyable. Away from her mother’s scrutiny she could laugh and flirt without the gentle reproaches she found so irritating.
It was then she met Aubrey Darby.

A few miles away Aubrey had grown up with his mother. At the age of twenty-one he still lived with her. He also had been raised as the youngest child of a mother struggling to cope without her husband’s income.
Mary Ann Darby appears to be a contradictory character, a careful, responsible mother, who wanted only that her children should be able to raise themselves out of poverty. In this sense she and Maudie West had much in common, as neither allowed their parlous situation to stop them pushing their youngest child on to higher things. In very different ways both were abandoned by their husbands.
In other ways the two women were very different. Mary Ann had her own fluid interpretation of veracity: she had no qualms about lying about her age on official documents such as marriage certificates, and so the dates and ages on birth and death certificates, and censuses, don’t tally.
Mary Ann Woodward was born in Flamstead, near Dunstable, in 1862. Fair- haired, blue- eyed, she was the seventh of nine children, seven girls sandwiched between two brothers. Nothing is known of her childhood except that she lived in a two- up, two- down house on the Beechwood Estate, near Markyate, ten miles from Luton. Her father was a gardener on the estate. Even today the surrounding countryside is peaceful and unspoilt.
Although she was born eight years before elementary education became compulsory, Mary Ann and her siblings were not illiterate. Before the 1870 Education Act their parents had ensured that their children had a basic education.
Like Maudie, Mary Ann went into service when she was twelve, and nearly eight years later met and married Herbert Goddard. He was only sixteen. On the marriage certificate Mary Ann’s age is recorded as sixteen, Herbert’s nineteen. Perhaps Mary Ann did not want it to be known she was older than her husband, although as the ages for the couple are reversed, it is possible that it was a clerical error. If so, it was one that Mary Ann did not wish to correct. What also makes such a mistake unlikely, is that she took six years off her age when she married Walter Darby, thirteen years later. He was also younger than Mary Ann, by six years. Yet the 1911 Census records her as two years older than Walter. It is hardly surprising that her children were always confused about how old she was.
Pregnancy might have triggered Mary Ann’s marriage to Herbert Goddard as he was barely old enough to wed, but if so, she did not carry the baby to term. There is no record of children for six years, unusual for the time, especially as the highly fertile Mary Ann bore eight children. Her older sisters gave birth outside wedlock, with monotonous regularity, never putting the father’s name on the birth certificate. Then, as now, it was illegal for an unmarried mother to officially record the father unless he was present at the time of registration or gave written consent. A reluctant father, perhaps already married in some cases, could just refuse point blank. There was nothing that legally could tie him to the baby. This was a time when contraception was of doubtful efficiency, and illegitimacy was common. Various home-made concoctions were used such as slippery elm and raw potato, but they usually failed. It was a hypocritical age with shame attached to pregnancy outside marriage, but young desire was often stronger. The nearest Anglican church to Markyate was a three mile walk away. So there was not even the thundering from the pulpit to act as a deterrent.
All Mary Ann’s children were born in wedlock. Then, in 1895, after thirteen years of marriage, Herbert Goddard died of tuberculosis. He was thirty. For most of those years Mary Ann would have nursed an increasingly sick husband There were four children to consider, one boy, and three girls, including twins. There was also a lodger, taken in to supplement the meagre family income. This lodger, a cousin of Herbert’s, was Walter Darby, my grandfather.
Herbert died at the end of January, and by early April, Mary Ann had married Walter. This might well have been a shrewd move to save her from the workhouse, but the fact that she was pregnant with Walter’s baby, does give the matter a different conclusion. This was backstreet living, where survival was key, and little time was given to considerations of sexual morality.
Walter was a soldier, honoured in the Boer War. From this he received a small annuity. He had always wanted to join the army, and had attended the Royal Military Asylum and Royal Hibernian Military Schools, for the sons of rank and file soldiers. They would have provided a harsh education, making Walter tough and probably callous. Disaster struck when he tried to enlist for the army at fifteen. He was turned down as he was too short: he termed it ‘too small’ when he was finally accepted at eighteen, and asked to state why the army had previously refused him. Even so, he was only five foot six when he did manage to enlist. He and the diminutive Mary Ann were suited to each other, at least in size.
The army enrolment form gives a picture of Walter, dark hair and eyes, with no marks of sustained beatings on him. In the days when the army was renowned for its harsh discipline, a new recruit would be examined carefully for marks of previous beatings, so that soldiers could not accuse their superiors of scars previously received. Both army schools attended by Walter had been castigated for their inhumane treatment of the pupils, and any recruit who had attended them might well be covered in old wounds. The document does add, however, that his forehead bore several scars. He weighed barely nine stone. Part of the reason for this might well have been malnutrition. This delicate physique was inherited by only one of his children, my father.
When he left the army after the Boer War, Walter became a general labourer, turning his hand to whatever work he could get. This, together with the annuity, gave the family an adequate living, and the Darbys were considered well off by the standards of the time. Walter managed to change that, by wasting money on extra-marital relationships.
From the beginning Walter was a philanderer. Anecdotal family records that the Goddard children resented their step-father, as Mary Ann was frequently left alone with her ever expanding family, to cope as best she could.
Walter frequently left home, only to return when his latest affair was over. My father records in his book, A View from the Alley:
No star pinpointed the location of my birth, yet my father who was
drunk at the time, said it was ‘a bloody miracle’
My father had thought that Mary Ann was forty-nine at the time of his birth, but she was forty-three. He writes:
The old midwife, without conceding an immaculate conception,
warned I would either be an imbecile or commit murder.
When Aubrey was six, Walter stopped returning home, but set up house with a woman, round the corner. My father remembered being dressed in his oldest clothes and sent round to the house where his father was lodging, to ask for money. His mother’s humiliation stayed in his memory.
For a while Walter kept in contact with his family, and then, with the outbreak of war in 1914 Walter joined the army again, but at the age of forty-four was too old for combative service. He loved his time in the army, and was sent to Egypt. The Great War rewarded him with another medal, and a pension for sixty-five weeks only, of twelve shillings, while Mary Ann received three shillings weekly. Walter did his best to distance himself from his wife, and stated on his army records that his next of kin was his mother.
Finally Walter left the area for good, and the family had no idea where he had gone. But records show he went to Nottingham where it seems he made a bigamous marriage.
Nothing more is known of Walter until the early 1940s. Mary Ann declared she was a widow and found a new job in a hat factory. She spent her days working, and raising her younger children. Life was bleak and hard, but she never lost her spirit and her hearty laugh. But the pretty, slim girl had been replaced by a dumpy, short workhorse.
The children by her first marriage were now adult, although some still remained in the tiny family home. During Mary Ann’s second marriage there had been four Darby children born, my father the youngest. It was these four children whom Walter Darby deserted. Years later my father took his revenge.
One day in the early 1940s, Walter turned up at 322 Luton Road. It was a weekday afternoon and my father was at work. Walter, shabby and seedy looking, tried to muster his old patter: ‘You are a beautiful woman; my son is a lucky man.’
When my father came home, he got no further than the hall. ‘Dabber, your father is here. I’ve put him in the front room with a cup of tea.’
‘You’ve done what!’ This was no question, but an explosion of sheer fury. My father seized Walter’s collar, the tea cup falling into the hearth and smashing irrecoverably.
No conversation. No comment. Walter was literally dragged down the hall and kicked out the front door.
My mother stood uncomprehendingly in the hall. ‘He seemed such a nice old man. I thought you’d be pleased to see your father. You told me he was dead.’
My father said nothing. He straightened the runner in the hall and fetched a broom and piece of card, to clear up the broken remains of the cup. An unusual quiet hung over the house that evening, but not another word was uttered on the subject.
We heard from cousin Norman, some years later, that Walter had also been to Ebbw Vale where his eldest son, Wally, lived. Wally was Mayor of Ebbw Vale and, according to my father, the young Aneurin Bevan’s political agent. A firm believer in tolerance and altruism, my uncle discovered that he could not apply those principles to Walter. His actions had been identical to those of my father.
Desperation had driven Walter to seek out his sons. He was in his seventies, living in destitution in Nottingham. It was there he died, in 1948, in a hostel for down-and-outs. He fell and fractured his hip, and the shock proved too much for the old man. The coroner provided the information for the death certificate so it is probable that none of Walter’s family knew what had happened to him, or even where he was.

Back in Luton, Mary Ann had struggled to raise her family. My father may have said ‘her word was law’, but while she worked long hours he felt free to roam the streets with his pals. He found a job with Mr. Clarke the butcher, and worked there, before and after school. When Aubrey developed appendicitis, it was kind Mr. Clarke who diagnosed what was wrong, after Gran, the local self-styled midwife and layer-out of bodies, had prescribed castor oil, and the doctor had charged half a crown to declare it was jaundice. My father wrote of Mr. Clarke:
His knowledge of sick animals stood me in good stead, for he asked
Ma to get more expert advice and he would foot the bill.
My father was taken to hospital for his appendix removal; as he was wheeled down to the operating theatre he glimpsed his mother in her best outfit, sitting bolt upright on a bench…how many times had she worn it…too few…I felt proud that she wore it for me.
He gives a vivid description of his mother’s clothes, saying she was:
dolled up in a russet-coloured costume with leg-of-mutton sleeves,
suede buttoned boots, and the flat cloth hat trimmed with pheasant’s wing feathers.
It was important to Mary Ann that she should look smart at this time of great anxiety. She had done her best for her son. By this time several half crowns had been paid to the incompetent doctor. In a household where every penny counted, that must have been a terrible drain on resources. Kind Mr. Clarke had saved her son from almost certain death. But the delay meant the appendix had burst, and in that pre-anti-biotic age, appendicitis was a deadly ailment. Now, all she could do was wait, hope and pray. Earlier that year, Gladys Mary, a daughter by Mary Ann’s first marriage, had lost her fight with nephritis and died in great pain; now Mary Ann sat by the bedside of another seriously ill child.
After the operation Aubrey took a long time to come round, and when he was finally returned to the ward his mother was waiting.
My first conscious impression was of my mother sitting by my bedside. She looked worn out in spite of her get-up, and I wished they would send her home to bed.
Aubrey was happy in hospital. He had a long stay and got up to mischief round the ward:
I sat on the bed of Miss Bachini who had St. Vitus Dance,
But she didn’t dance whilst I sat there.
Leaving was difficult for him:
Loving care and kindness, such as I had never known from outsiders before, had been inflicted upon me to such an extent, that I dreaded the reality outside those walls.
His mother bought him a new outfit to wear for the journey home on the tram, short nicks, Norfolk jacket and cap with ear flaps. The conductor commented that Aubrey looked pale.
She countered by asking him if he expected to see a Red Indian. I relaxed, contented. Ma was still the same.
Back home, to the same musty odour of rising dampness and overcrowded habitation, there was a vase of daffodils on the table. Mary Ann’s embarrassed denial that they had been bought for him, told Aubrey that they had. She was excited and grateful that he was home and well, and had arranged for him to start piano lessons the following week. Her son was safe: now she wanted him to achieve all he could in life. Piano lessons were a start. Aubrey was horrified. He knew she could not afford them, and to have piano lessons would make him a laughing stock of all the other urchins in the area.
I waxed eloquent in my own cause. ‘Get to bed!’ cried Ma, without
recourse to a threatened bashing. My first night home, I suppose.

When he was twelve, my father took the Labour examination, which allowed boys who reached the required standard to leave school, and start full –time work. Mary Ann was against this, but Aubrey was adamant, for he felt that he had learned all that the sparse curriculum was offering. He passed, and the Headteacher wrote in his log book that it was ‘very discouraging,’ to see such intelligent boys leaving. In fact, he visited Mary Ann, to ask her to leave her son at school, as he was so able. Mary Ann’s pleas to Aubrey to continue his education, were unsuccessful. Reflecting, years later, my father wrote:
‘Darby,’ the Headmaster said, ‘It’s no use asking you to stay at
school, is it? You know it all.’ Little did he know how that remark
hurt, because a little persuasion at that time would have kept me at school. He made up my mind for me, so I departed with a chip
on my shoulder, to make a living full time.
That chip, in one form or another, stayed with him for the rest of his life. Ironically, he chose to forget that both his headmaster and mother had originally urged him to stay at school, and he had refused. In fairness to him, his school could offer no higher education than he had already received, and his mother could not have afforded grammar school fees. Had he stayed he would have probably become a pupil teacher, and been paid a pittance.
The job with Mr. Clarke, the butcher, became full time for a year, before my father went to work in the busy hat trade as an odd job boy. Tiring of this, he went to work at the Diamond Foundry, which affected his lungs so badly that he had to leave. The working conditions in foundries were appalling, with little consideration given to health hazards.
The Great War brought fresh loss to Mary Ann. Her son, Frederick George, signed up despite being only sixteen. In 1916 he lied about his age to join the Royal Navy and went down with his ship shortly afterwards. In the dying moments of the war another daughter, Emily Maud, died from the influenza that ripped through the country.
After the war Aubrey managed to obtain one of the coveted jobs at
Electrolux in Luton, where a thriving domestic appliance factory was in its infancy. It was there that he demonstrated his quick grasp of the workings of machinery. With increased confidence, he was soon able to apply for a foreman’s job at Bagshawe Conveyors, an iron foundry in Dunstable, and stayed there until he retired, nearly fifty years later.
It was at Electrolux he met Violet West.

A View from the Alley, by A.S. Darby, was published in 1974, by Luton Museum.

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Book Completion…and Sally Cline

Today I saw my mentor, biographer, Dr. Sally Cline. She approved my final chapters and it looks very much as if my memoir is almost completed.

Sally is a brilliant mentor and I have learned so much from her. She is a born teacher and mistress of her craft. I always come away from our meetings with fresh motivation and insight.

Sally’s own books are beautifully written, scholarly yet accessible, and have been responsible for keeping me up late at night when I should have been sleeping. Her latest book is ‘Dashiell Hammett – Man of Mystery’ and I read that at a sitting.
‘One of Us is Lying’, her recently published collection of short stories, has an unexpected thread running through them which is both intriguing and satisfying.

I am honoured to be mentored by Sally.

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Truancy Officers, Nits and Paraffin

…As I made my way back to London that evening I started to think about what had followed the birth of my parents’ first child, a boy, Anthony John. Mum worshipped him from the day he was born, and was apparently delighted when Shirley Ann arrived two years later. But more children followed in quick succession, and she found it increasingly hard to cope.
Mum was a mass of contradictions. She could be cruel and compassionate by turns, but she loved her babies with a passion. Shirley remembers her nursing me devotedly throughout my first winter. I had a weak chest, from being born to a mother with pneumonia. I was also born with bandy legs, and was prescribed splints, to be worn at night, to straighten them. Mum could not bear my distress at the discomfort, and soon stopped using them.
Yet, she found it easy to leave the children in her frenzy of socialising, and was happy for her two eldest children to assume a dangerous level of responsibility. As soon as Tony and Shirley were old enough to wash and dress themselves, they had helped with their younger brothers and sisters. The family had moved twice by this time, and was living at 322 Luton Road. For Shirley, in particular, life was hard. By the time she was ten there were four children younger than her, and most of her time was spent looking after them.
Shirley remembered one incident as particularly painful. She was ten and it was a school day. She stood at the kitchen sink, gazing out of the window, across the back garden. Her fingers played with the suds in the washing up water. On the left side of the garden she could see the thriving vegetable patch: beans, cabbages, carrots, potatoes. Dad won prizes at the local produce show, held annually at Evelyn Road School, round the corner. To his fury, Mum refused to cook these vegetables as he used chicken manure to help their growth. When Dad tried to explain about the wider use of manure in farming, Mum looked at him with contempt. ‘You think I was born yesterday. Of course they don’t use animal droppings, so don’t talk such disgusting filth. ‘
Dad picked his beautiful crop; Mum gave it away directly he was out of sight, then bought inferior vegetables from the corner shop.
The right side of the garden was the domain of the chickens, and Shirley could see them strutting and busy.
At the bottom of the garden was Back Field, a strip of grass, rich with clover, from which the children sucked the sweetness, pretending it was sugar. Cheerful with scabious and dog daisies, proud with buttercups, the field skirted the row of houses between Belle Vue Garage and the Halfway House Hotel. The children in the houses gathered there to play. And the other side of Back Field was the playground of Evelyn Road School. The shouts and laughter of the children in the dinner- time break enticed her, but Shirley knew that there was no hope of joining them.
‘Shirley,’ Mum’s voice broke into her thoughts. ‘Have you finished the washing-up?’
‘Nearly, Mum.’ Hastily Shirley emptied the dirty water down the sink, and grabbed the tea towel to begin drying the dishes.
‘Then bring me a cup of tea, and don’t forget to rinse the cup with boiling water.’
A loud knock at the front door interrupted proceedings. ‘Shirley, see who that is.’
Obediently Shirley dried her hands and opened the door to find an officious looking man, complete with brief-case, on the step.
‘Mum, it’s a gentleman.’ She raised her voice so her mother could hear in the living room.
‘I don’t want to buy anything. Say ‘‘No thank you,’’ and close the door.’
The man looked irritated and shuffled his feet. He cleared his throat and called down the hall, ‘Mrs. Darby, I have just come from a meeting with Miss Greenwood, at Evelyn Road School. I wish to discuss your daughter’s attendance.’
A moment’s silence, then, ‘Shirley, invite the gentleman in, and then make him a nice cup of tea. Don’t forget the saucer.’ As the man entered the living room Mum gave a tinkling laugh. ‘You know what children are like, I’m sure. They do lack social graces. Now, how can I help you? Shirley, close the door after you. The gentleman and I need to discuss matters that are no business of children.’
Shirley knew what ‘don’t forget the saucer meant’ and so ran next door to borrow two matching cups and saucers from Mrs. Coombes. Back in the kitchen, Shirley skipped and jumped. She realised that the visitor was
the truancy officer, and that it meant that she would be going back to school. It was nearly a month since she had last run round the corner to join her friends at Evelyn Road. It had begun with Mum being unwell and staying home from work for a few days. Shirley’s heart had sunk as she knew what would happen. It always did. She was kept at home to look after her mother while the other children went to school and nursery as usual. This time, when Mum returned to work, Jill caught a heavy cold, and so Shirley had to continue staying at home to look after her. Then, as Jill recovered, Shirley herself was crippled with pains in her back, and cried as she dragged herself out of bed in the morning.
‘It’s your kidneys,’ said Mum, not without sympathy, ‘You take after me.’
‘Growing pains,’ said Dad, ‘Work it off.’
As Mum hurried out of the door to work, she said, ‘If you’re not going to school, you can take Jill and Judy to nursery. That will save Tony a job. If you still feel ill after that, you can go back to bed.’
Coming back down the hill from the nursery the pain became stronger; Shirley gasped and bent double. A kindly neighbour stopped to ask if she was all right. ‘It’s growing pains,’ explained Shirley, ‘I’m going to work it off,’ and she struggled through the garden gate on her way to bed.
The attack passed after a few days, but Mum said it would be a good idea if she took longer off school. After all, it had been a nasty bout and she could stay in the warm and get some housework done.
‘Please let me go to school,’ said Shirley, ‘I don’t want to stay at home.’
There was no discussion. Shirley stayed off school, and was still running the home when Mum had another of her bad heads and vomiting. Although Mum could probably look after herself at these times, Shirley knew there was the extra complication of Mum fearing her own company, something never voiced.
The truancy officer’s visit coincided with the last day of Mum’s illness. She was due to return to work the next day, but no one had mentioned Shirley being allowed to go back to school.
So, for Shirley, the visit was a miracle. The man would tell Mum she was wrong, and that Shirley must go back to her lessons.
Nudging the door open with her foot, Shirley entered the living room, carefully balancing the cups of tea. To her surprise, Mum and the man were laughing and talking like old friends.
The man turned to Shirley. ‘So you’re Mummy’s helper. I hear what a good girl you are to help your mother with the little ones. It’s so difficult for Mummy never being able to go out with her poor health. How old are you?’ He consulted his file and gave Mum a reassuring smile. Shirley watched anxiously. ‘Ten years old, and quite the mother. Mummy is so proud of you, doing all the things she can’t, but would love to do.’
A shiver ran down Shirley’s back as she realised that this man was not going to help her go back to school. He was still talking to her in a patronising tone: ‘And your older brother is doing so well at the grammar school – passed the scholarship a year early. But girls are the future homemakers, aren’t they? It’s so hard for your mother, who would so love to be strong and run the home without help.’
Shirley looked at Mum, and caught her giving the truancy officer a gentle, wistful smile. ‘How well you understand,’ Mum murmured.
The man leaned forward, and said earnestly, ‘Mrs. Darby, keep Shirley home whenever you need her. I fully understand.’
Shirley wanted to cry, but knew better. Mum would say, ‘Stop that crying, or I’ll give you something to cry for.’ With a cold resignation she realised that her hopes of going to school regularly had gone. Even the truancy officer wouldn’t help her.

It was some days after the truancy officer’s visit that Shirley eventually returned to school. Shy at first and wary of the curiosity about her long absence, she kept her head down and concentrated on her lessons. Mum had told her she must say that she had been suffering from ‘flu with complications’ if anyone asked. But soon she relaxed, enjoying the familiar routine of the classroom and the chalk-laden atmosphere. Even the odour of the stale, unwashed bodies of children was not unwelcome, and she revelled in the predictability of the day.
As the children lined up after lunch-time play, a whisper spread down the line: ‘Nitty Nora’s here.’ And sure enough the children were told to form an orderly queue in the corridor to have their heads checked for lice.
Standing next to a table which carried a bowl of disinfectant stood a tall, angular lady with a mouth like a rat-trap. No one had ever seen Nitty Nora smile. Her wire wool hair was scraped back viciously from her face into a severe bun. Not a trace of make-up softened the rough red features, and her eyes were as cold as the charity she lacked. She would dip what looked remarkably like a knitting needle into the bowl of disinfectant, trawl through a child’s hair, give a grunt of dissatisfaction if she found nothing, then give a sharp nudge to the child’s back. The victim would stumble away, and she would claw another forward. When Nitty Nora found evidence of infestation she would dig her bony fingers triumphantly into the child’s shoulders and march the cringing pupil down the corridor like a criminal to Miss Greenwood, the headmistress.
Shirley waited anxiously, relieved when she received the push in her back that meant her head was clear. But three children were not so lucky and Miss Greenwood sent home letters to all the parents that afternoon, warning them that any child found with headlice would be banned from school until a doctor’s note confirmed that the situation had been dealt with properly. Miss Greenwood accepted the common convention that head lice were caused by lack of hygiene.
When Mum read the letter explaining the anti head infestation procedure, she reacted strongly. ‘No child of mine gets head lice. My children’s heads are clean. It’s disgusting that people send their children to school with filthy vermin crawling in their hair, ready to infest others.’
She became alarmed when Shirley told her that the three infested children were in Shirley’s class. There had been no attempt to keep their identity secret, and a long line of children had watched their ignominious trek down to Miss Greenwood’s room, marshalled by a self-satisfied Nitty Nora. There was an air of black comedy about it all. Miss Greenwood had responded to the knock on her door, by coming into the corridor and closing the door firmly behind her. Her look of distaste was formidable : no bugs were to have the chance to infiltrate her room, and she stood several feet away from the luckless children, whom by now were weeping wrecks . Within seconds the children had been despatched home with Mrs. Greenwood’s voice ringing down the corridor, ‘Tell your mothers a letter will be in the post by the end of the afternoon with clear instructions what they must do.’
Mum was terrified of such disgrace, and Shirley tried to console her. ‘Mum, it’s all right, I haven’t got nits.’
‘But the eggs might have been too tiny for the nurse to see. You probably played with the children who have got nits. That would be typical. You didn’t, did you?’ Mum’s voice rose in alarm.
We all believed Mum could read our minds and so Shirley confessed that one of them was a friend with whom she had played two-ball that morning.
We waited anxiously, knowing all too well that Mum’s mood changes came out of the blue, and weren’t surprised when she went white and her fists clenched. ‘You stupid little cow, now you’re bound to get them. Wait till your father gets home.’
Tony looked up from his homework with a quizzical expression on his face. ‘I can’t see Dad going barmy about it like you. He’ll probably say that there are more important things to worry about and just to wait and see what happens.’
Mum gave an absent minded swipe in his direction for his cheek. Her heart wasn’t in it though as she was absorbing the truth of what Tony had said. ‘You’re right. He won’t be any help. I’ve got to think of something myself.’
All went quiet, and then Mum snapped her fingers triumphantly. ‘I know – paraffin.’
Tony looked apprehensive. ‘What do you mean? What are you going to do with paraffin?’
‘Don’t be bloody stupid, I’m going to use it to clean Shirley’s head.’
As Shirley backed away into a corner Tony said, ‘Mum, be reasonable, say you’re joking. You can’t pour paraffin over Shirley’s head. What will you do then – set light to her?’
Mum gave her tinkling laugh as at a joke. Tony assumed all was well and returned to his homework. Shirley watched Mum warily and kept out of her way, making sure that she did all her household chores so carefully that she couldn’t arouse Mum’s anger. Never had the table been set with such precision, nor the kitchen floor washed so thoroughly.
Shortly before Dad came home Tony went out to feed the chickens.
‘Quick, Shirley, come here.’ Mum grabbed the can of paraffin from under the sink. ‘ Put your head over the bowl before Tony comes back and makes trouble by telling your father.’ She glared at Jill and me as we peered round the corner from the back room. ‘Get back in there and play quietly. It’s nearly your bedtime.’
We backed away, fearful of being sent to bed earlier than necessary, but listened wide-eyed and scared to Shirley’s begging.
’Please, Mum, no. I haven’t got nits, I haven’t. Nitty Nora said so.’
Mum gripped Shirley’s arm and hauled her towards the sink. ‘I’m doing this for you. Do you want the other children to despise you when those eggs hatch? Do you want your mother disgraced by being one of those children with nitty hair?’ Mum shuddered. ‘I couldn’t bear the shame.’
Shirley put her head over the sink. The cold paraffin gushed over her head, and the fumes made her choke and retch.
‘Mum, I feel sick, I’m going to faint.’
‘Keep your eyes closed then you’ll be all right,’ said Mum, one eye on the back door as she swilled the paraffin haphazardly over Shirley. ‘That should do it. Stop crying or I’ll give you something to cry for. Here, dry your face and neck with this towel,’ and she flung the dirty scrap of worn cloth which served as a kitchen-do-all towards a sobbing Shirley. Her face and neck rapidly became red and raw, and Mum applied Nivea cream before Shirley went to bed.
‘No need to mention it to your father,’ said Mum, ‘and I’ve told Tony to keep his mouth shut.’
‘I’m so sore, Mum,’ said Shirley, ‘and my head hurts.’
‘You’ll feel better in the morning, and just think you won’t be one of those dirty children with nits.’
The next morning Shirley woke with a throbbing head and a blistered face and neck. Even Mum was worried when she saw that Shirley’s head was noticeably swollen with weeping sores. She couldn’t put a comb through her hair without crying out in pain.
‘Crikey Mum,’ said Tony, ‘Shirley’s head has grown enormous. She looks like a monster. You’ll have to take her to the doctor.’
‘No need,’ said Mum, the tinkling laugh in evidence again, a sign she was nervous. ‘She’ll be as right as rain in a few days time. A couple of days at home will do the trick. There’s a few jobs to catch up on round the house, so that’s a bonus. I’ll send a note in by one of the others to say she’s got a cold. We don’t want them thinking she’s got nits.’

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Cleaning a Doorstep

I thought something a little lighter from the memoir might make a change!
I remember this incident vividly.

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