Tuesday, 9 August 2011

We're all going on a summer holiday

Well, actually, I'm not, but it would have been about this time that, as a child, my parents (or sometimes just my mother if my father was abroad somewhere with the Navy), my brother and I would decamp to Broadstairs for a fortnight. We stayed each year at Mrs Ponsonby's guest house. After breakfast we would make our way down the High Street (which was a pretty steep hill according to my memory) to the beach. We would return to Mrs P's for dinner (or was it lunch?), then it was usually back to the beach until it was time for the next meal. High tea, perhaps? Or maybe dinner had been a light meal and this was the main meal of the day? This would have been the pattern of my August almost every year until I was ten.

It is a well known "fact" that the English Do Not Like children. So great is their dislike that, if they are very much Upper Class or above, they hire nannies, and sometimes nursemaids as well, to take care of their little darlings 24 hours a day. The children are presented to - or paraded in front of - their parents once a day, duly washed, scrubbed and ready for bed. Those who are not very much Upper Class - indeed, some who are - and cannot afford a nanny will settle for an au pair, a bonny lass with shot-putter's shoulders from some obscure East European country. She does not take care of the children 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Actually, some of these temporary visitors to our shores don't really take care of the children at all, but the parents think everything is hunky dory so that's all that matters.

Of course, as soon as the little darlings are out of nappies it is time for them to be sent away to school. Well, maybe not quite as young as that.

There is no way that my parents could have been described as Upper Class. My father was a naval rating and my grandfathers were an electrician and a dockyard matey. So there was no way that I had a nanny or an au pair, and there was certainly no way my parents could have afforded to send me away to school. Nevertheless, sent away to school I was - but not until I was ten.

I almost saw my old school yesterday - from a distance of 50 miles! I was walking across the fields with the dog when the visibility, which was already good, suddenly improved and I happened to notice the Isle of Wight. It was little more than a smudge on the horizon but I know its distinct shape and just where it should appear. Of course I couldn't see the school, which was (and, I believe, still is) in Ventnor, but I could see the hump of St Catherine's Down which sits behind and above the old town.

Anybody reading this with more than two or three brain cells switched on will have spotted the apparent contradiction. My family was distinctly not Upper Class - heck, we were probably not even middle Middle Class - and yet, there was I - and my brother as well - sent away to school. I had better come clean. It was charity pure and simple. The school was run by nuns and was described as an open air school for delicate children. Yes, my brother and I were classed as "delicate" on account of our asthma and our doctor had persuaded my mother that the fresh air of the Isle of Wight would be far better for our health than the polluted air of the Medway towns. I don't recall the school as being all that much "open air". Twice a week we would be walked in a crocodile up onto the Downs behind the town (which is how I know St Catherine's Down - the school was also called St Catherine's, by the way) or, occasionally, to a small secluded cove where we would be allowed to scramble over the rocks at low tide.

We were only at the school from January until August. That year I sat and passed the exam known as the Eleven Plus and was awarded a place at the grammar school. My mother thought it more important for me to have a grammar school education than live in the rarefied air surrounding the nuns and took my brother and I home again in August. But we didn't go to Broadstairs that year.

1 comment:

Suldog said...

Ah, so that's why I'm not overly fond of children! It's the bit of English blood in me!