Tuesday, October 19, 2010

15 & 16 North Cheam School

It was at North Cheam School that I discovered my love of acting. As children we had put on plays, as kids do, in order to con a couple of pennies 'entrance fee' from our parents and friends. Jane and I would to sing “Danny Boy”, “My Old Man Said Follow the Van” and "Little Grey Home in the West". We once nearly set fire to our bedroom with a dramatisation of the nursery rhyme “Jack be nimble, Jack be quick, Jack jump over the candle stick.” The candle was lit but Jack did not jump quite high enough. But, at school acting was serious stuff and the English teacher, Miss Sweet, thought so much of my ability that she insisted I play Kate Hardcastle in “She Stoops to Conquer”, although it was the sixth form end of year play and I was only thirteen and in the 5th form. One line gave me trouble, but once learned never forgotten. Kate Hardcastle says to her father “I trust Sir, that you have ever found that I considered your commands as my pride, for my duty as yet has been inclination”. One day I must re-read the script.

I was also to be Alice in "Alice Through the Looking Glass", and so I dragged a very big old picture frame out of the cupboard under the stairs to use as the mirror. Unfortunately, there was a large piece of broken glass still in the frame and it dropped out and went right through my foot. As I pulled the glass out, the blood shot up like a fountain. My poor mother nearly died on the spot.

Another thing I remember from school is the third of a pint bottle of milk we had every morning for a half penny; the very poor children did not have to pay. There was about an inch of thick cream on the top of the milk which, in the winter, would be frozen and difficult to push the straw through. I enjoyed singing and was in the school choir and one day, after war had been declared, I was in the school hall rehearsing “The merry, merry pipes of Pan” for the school concert, when the doors burst open and one of the teachers, followed by her class of children, came bursting in on their way to the air raid shelters. They thought they had heard a siren! Which reminds me of a poem my father wrote about me:

“Cynthia Lawley, sometimes you appal me.
"Your high pitch screech out of heaven’s reach.
"A Peter Pan without a doubt,
"I bet you’ll marry some dumb lout”.

Which about equals my under-the-stairs poem written during the war, which you will have the dubious pleasure of reading later.

One small incident shows that I have always been resourceful. The Geography teacher asked me to go down to the staff room to fetch the globe. I hate to admit that I don’t understand anything properly, so when in doubt I improvise. I looked round the staffroom, muttering to myself, “Globe, globe, globe.” I couldn’t see anything that looked like a globe. So I pulled out a chair, lifted in up onto the table and removed the light bulb from the overhanging electric light. The teacher looked somewhat surprised when I handed it to her, and no doubt she got a few laughs in retelling the incident later in the staff room.

I have only passed two exams in my life, Royal Society of Arts English Grade I at school, and Pitman’s typing stage one when I was forty six. Well, some of us are just late learners! Academically challenged, one might say. But when I left Cheam Central School, never again to enter the education system, the Head Teacher, Mrs. Evans wrote – dated 15.11.1940

“Miss Cynthia Lawley of 174 Churchill Road, Cheam, was admitted to this school on 8.3.37 and is leaving today owing to removal. She has proved herself to be a highly intelligent scholar of excellent character. English is a very good subject and has reached stage I standard, Royal Society of Arts. All subjects reach a good average level. We have always found her a vivacious scholar, who is keen to do well and who enjoys school life and work. Her manner is courteous, pleasant and obliging, and she shows a keen dramatic sense, and has acted in school plays, proving much ability. Her election as Form Prefect proves that she has won the respect and affection of staff and scholars. We shall be sorry to lose her, but consider she will always give good service and will always endeavour to progress.”

How about that then? Apart from birth and marriage certificates this is the only document I have ever kept. Programmes recording plays I have performed in, love letters, records of travels, I have kept nothing else. Of course I have endeavoured to progress, I have had to move with the times and I've learned how to use a computer - they have not yet invented a ball point pen with an in-built grammar and spell check. And if you think all this is being written by a ghost writer, you are wrong. I suspect my son or daughter will check the punctuation, but the rest is all my own work.

My sister, Jane, had decided that she wanted to be a Norland Nanny, but father said, quite wisely, that she had better work with children first to see if she liked the little blighters before he considered sending her on a nursing course. So off she went to a posh residence in Windsor ,where she was second nursery maid in the house of some very rich people. The day she left mother cried a great deal, burying her face in the roller towel that hung down the back door of the kitchen. It was heartbreaking to see her. After a few weeks of scrubbing floors, washing nappies, doing all the dirty work and being beaten by the little darlings with wooden spoons, Jane ran away, somehow getting from Windsor to Cheam, losing one of her shoes on the way. Norland was never mentioned again.

Instead, Jane became an apprentice at Peter Robinson's in Oxford Street, where she spent weeks just sitting in a stock room sewing labels on garments. Being an apprentice was a serious business in those days. When the bombing started mother would not allow Jane to work in London, and so she became a drapery apprentice at a big department store called Shinner's in Sutton, and lived in their hostel. That was where she met Anthony Bulling, the son of a drapery shop owner in Bury St. Edmunds, who was being trained to take over the family business. They became engaged, but as soon as they were old enough to sign up, Tony left Shinner's to join the Fleet Air Arm and Jane left to join the Army.

So, now we come to that Sunday in September 1939 when everyone was waiting by the radio to hear what Neville Chamberlain, the Prime Minister, had to say. I was in the garden with Maureen, who was playing on a little swing that hung from the veranda, and although only a child of thirteen, I could sense that something very strange was happening because everywhere was so quiet. No cars drove by the house. No sounds of the ritual Sunday lawn mowing; even the birds seemed to be listening. I heard the fatal words declaring “and consequently this country is now at war with Germany.” I had no idea what that meant exactly, but I somehow knew that nothing would ever be the same again.

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