When a film triggers a memory

Last weekend I went to The Phoenix cinema in East Finchley with Michael to watch Philomena. The Phoenix is one of the UK’s oldest purpose-build, continuously operating cinemas according to its website. The vaulted ceiling dates back to the early 20th century. It’s an amazing venue, and quite the place the Boulevardier should frequent.

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The film itself was wonderful and thought provoking, albeit rather harrowing. Towards the end (and I won’t give plot away) there is a scene with an aged and retired nun. She belligerently defends her actions fifty years previously which materially affected Philomena’s life. Philomena remained calm and said she forgave the nun for her actions.

As we left the theatre my thoughts turned to my school days and as we walked back to our cars I told Michael a story about my first few days at school. Some of the detail had faded with time, and as I was meeting my parents for lunch two days later, I decided to ask Mum what she remembered.

After a morning coffee in the Boulevardier’s lounge my parents and I walked the short distance to The Maynard where we were booked for Sunday lunch. After we had ordered our roast chicken, roast beef and a beef and Guinness pie, I asked Mum what she remembered. I was unable to take a long and dramatic sip of sherry or red wine as I was rather dehydrated following a brilliant Halloween party the previous evening, and had decided to abstain.

‘Of course’ said Mum, ‘as if it happened yesterday.’

When I was three years old and not a London Boulevardier but a country boy, I went to playschool. There was no playschool in the village in which we resided and I had to go to the one in the next village. The first morning passed without incident, but on the second Mum received a call as I was distraught. Playschool was held in a timber annexe known as The Scout Hall on the outskirts of the village and one of the older children came in wearing a scary mask! This had almost traumatised me and it will come as no surprise that I didn’t want to return.  I asked Mum why she didn’t make me go back.

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‘There is no choice on whether or not you go to school but there is a choice with playschool’ Mum reasoned.

School soon came around and I was extremely excited and enthusiastic to go. It was six weeks before my fifth birthday. Mum thought she might have a problem leaving me there, but I was positive, took off my coat and ran to a table and sat down. Mum said I was proud as a peacock to be at school. Flamstead JMI was the only education centre in our small village and it felt massive. Its five classrooms and over one hundred pupils were all new to me and daunting enough on their own without the additional punishing circumstances.

The morning passed and Mum came to collect me for lunch. We lived close enough to the school to take luncheon at home. My mood had drastically changed and I did not want to go back to school for the afternoon. Confused, Mum asked me what had changed and I told her the teacher had smacked me. Mum didn’t believe a word of it as a teacher couldn’t smack a child – or could they? I didn’t settle at school as well in the afternoon as I had in the morning and Mum struggled to get me to stay. It was all rather upsetting.

When Mum returned to the school gates at the appointed afternoon time she encountered one of Dad’s sisters, Auntie Ann, and explained the rather odd events of the day. Auntie Ann said she would ask my cousin Lorraine who was also in my class what had happened.

Lorraine confirmed that Mrs S. had smacked me as I couldn’t hold my pencil properly and had tried to make me write with my right hand rather than my natural and favoured left. I hadn’t yet learned to hold my pencil between my thumb and second and third fingers, but rather held the pencil between all my fingers.

At this Mum went straight round to the classroom and demanded to speak with Mrs S.. She denied administering corporal punishment and held her position regarding changing the hand I wrote with. This was the mid-1970s, not the dark ages, in case anyone was wondering. Mum left the classroom and walked to the Headmaster’s office; he listened and confirmed he’d look into it.

Mum came home uneasy and hoped that all would be sorted. The next lunchtime she asked me which hand I had used to hold my pencil, and I indicated I had to use my right. I of course didn’t say right as I was too young to know the difference but rather showed Mum.

We walked back to school for the afternoon session and Mum went straight to the Headmaster who was apparently still looking into it. Mum wasn’t having any of it and told Mr Ashwood, the Headmaster that she was going to see the GP for a professional opinion.

Mum telephoned Dr Coombes that afternoon and he confirmed that there was no way the school should continue trying to change the hand with which I wrote. He suggested that Mum should notify the school of his opinion and if there were any more problems he would come to the school. Mum relayed the message to Mr Ashwood and I was suddenly allowed to use my left hand again.

Mrs S. was in Mum’s words ‘as sweet as apple pie’ thereafter with no further incidents. Years later when Mum would bump into her she would always ask after me. Mum would always give a curt ‘He’s fine’ response.   

I can remember being smacked across the left hand, which knocked the pencil from my hand, and being aggressively criticised for using the wrong hand, holding the pencil incorrectly and not being able to write my name. My memories are in flashes and evoke somewhat unsettling emotions of panic and despair.

I thought we went to school to learn?

I can also remember being told that I was far too naughty to go out to play in the afternoon with the rest of the children and being made to sit on a chair outside the staffroom as Mrs S. watched me. I was terrified and so upset. I can remember being really excited about growing up and being old enough to attend school, and things unravelling and going so wrong so quickly and it was all too much. I made a dash for it but S. caught me before I could get out of the building and make the short run home. She smacked me again and chastised me for being so disobedient

Years later when I was in my late teens this incident used to haunt me and I wanted to go and speak to the teacher, dominate her, and see how she felt. I decided not to and I am glad I didn’t.

We finished our lunch. Mum was too full for dessert, aside from a spoonful of my sticky toffee pudding. Dad had some bread and butter pudding. We chatted more about old memories and I connected on Facebook to one of Mum’s cousins whose new address she didn’t have. It was a lovely afternoon. I always enjoy my parent’s visits to Crouch End.

Did Mrs S. ever look back and realise she had acted so wrongly? I have no idea. However, at least there weren’t any long-lasting or adverse consequences, and I really enjoyed school. In fact, aside from the first few days, I would go back and do it all again at the drop of a hat.

The consequences on Philomena were substantially more severe and in fact incomparable. It’s really amazing sometimes how a really old and rarely thought of memory is triggered. As I reflected I am glad I didn’t confront my teacher, and like Philomena, maintained my dignity.

TNW

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Phone box of my youth

Change is always in the air, and as we mature there are more layers of transformation to observe.

When I lived in Hackney in the mid to late 1990s regeneration was in the early stages of gestation. I lived on Richmond Road, overlooking London Fields. As I walked along Richmond Road to Mare Street I would pass Flowers East Gallery, and an old factory, which became derelict while I lived there.

There was a group of shops at the Mare Street/Richmond Road junction among which was a newspaper shop, Hair By Byron (Greek barber called Vic), a rundown off licence (selling more special brew than anything), and a builders’ café.

Now the area is unrecognisable with high blocks of offices and flats with beautiful cafes and shops below. The factory and Byron are long gone.

Sometimes however, it’s not just areas that disappear and alter beyond recognition, but parts of our heritage. The change is slow and sometimes we don’t notice until something is gone. Perhaps even several years later we ponder ‘What happened to…?’

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Libraries for one are reducing in number and a recent report from the Department for Culture, Media and Sport tells us that the proportion of adults using them has fallen from 48% to 36%. How long before they become defunct, empty and destitute?

How about the humble British telephone box?

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The iconic red boxes started to disappear from our streets as far back as 1985 when BT announced modernisation and redesign. They are no longer being modernised or iconic but disappearing. The availability of mobile telephones has rendered them more redundant. Many sit derelict, vandalised and unused.

Recently while I waited for a friend outside Camden underground station I noticed two telephone boxes, side by side, keeping each other company as everyone walked by them, and didn’t even notice they were there.

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I kept focussed on the phone boxes to see if any of the multitudes of brightly coloured pedestrians even noticed or acknowledged their existence. After a few minutes a solitary, rather desperate looking, middle-aged woman went into one and attempted to make a call but was soon out to try the other. She left that swiftly too and I had to deduce that both were ‘out of service’.

These phone boxes, booths, kiosks or whatever you prefer to call them were once the centre of society. Everyone knew where their nearest was. They played a key role in social planning and events. People planned to call or to be called at a public telephone at set times so as not to miss each other. There was not the modern convenience of being able to call, and reach your friends, family and business acquaintances at will.

The mind is an odd contraption and it’s bizarre how memories are triggered. Thinking of telephone boxes in Camden took me right back to my youth…

In the Hertfordshire village, Flamstead, where I grew up there were two phone boxes. One was adjacent to the combined Post Office/grocer’s store and the second was directly outside my childhood home.

Our boundary was a privet hedge and gates across the driveway. Beyond that was a grass verge with a phone box situated on the corner. The grass verge wasn’t part of our property but Dad always mowed the grass when he cut our own. He reasoned that he didn’t want the verge to look unkempt as it affected the street side vista of our home. He would also park his van on the grass verge to keep a vehicle off the street, particularly as we lived on a sharp corner.

The phone box presented a challenge. It had been there for a significant number of years and long before the roads were so full of cars. Vehicles would frequently park directly outside the box creating a hazard, or worse, blocking our driveway. Mum acted as a great sentry and would charge out when she spotted the vehicle and demand that the vehicle be moved immediately. On a few occasions several callers actually pulled into the drive which generated a similar, if not even more, strident response.

Eventually my parents made representations to the local Council to have it removed. The response was disappointing and the letter confirmed that Trowley Hill was a public highway and unless there were yellow lines present vehicles may park at will. Our corner was not considered in need of yellow lines. Further representations concerning common courtesy and blocking points of access fell on deaf ears.

That said, Mum would also go out armed with a dustpan, brush, dishcloth (as long as it could go straight in the bin after as it wasn’t welcome back in the home after servicing the box), polish and duster to ensure that the phone box had the same level of sheen as our home.

I asked her why she would expend energy cleaning a public telephone box. She replied

‘I am not having that filthy thing outside our house!’

She would also collect stray one and two pence coins and deposit them in the charity box in the aforementioned village Post Office.

I guess it was a love-hate relationship.

Many of the village inhabitants also used the phone box and quite often there would be groups of my friends making calls to whomever. I even received a phone call once from an admirer asking if I was at home. I had no idea she was calling from the telephone box outside my house!

Do you remember your own phone box experiences? Ask anyone under 35 when they last used a phone box, and if they even know where their nearest is. I sadly now don’t know where my nearest is, or when last I used it. They are indeed confined to the past, but that doesn’t mean we should forget them and this blog shall serve as my homage to a disappearing but vital part of our social and communications past.

TNW