AUTHORITY FIGURES ARE ALWAYS RIGHT……
Well that is what I believed for many years. It was through a demonstrations with Earl Russell that I learned that authority is often wrong. Earl Bertrand Russell led the protests for the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND) and was a passionate and rational speaker. That day in Trafalgar Square was a life changing moment for me. I was a teenager and completely in awe of the power of his speech and the compelling influence a crowd of 60,000 can have. Although there were many police and mounted police at Trafalgar Square and a chance of civil disobedience I wasn’t frightened. Through this experience I became a willing convert to question the so called ‘powers that be’.
It was through an appendectomy that I learned fear of the unknown and of those in authority. I was quite thrilled to be going by ambulance to hospital. Dressed in a long pink linen nightie trimmed with rosebuds I danced to the ambulance feeling very proud of my new found celebrity status. Ambulances were not common in our street and the neighbours had come out to check the scene. Many called out to me and I remember smiling and waving back.
Sorry to say that was the end of the fun. In a hospital bed and gown reality sank in. I was just over 4 years of age and I had never been away from my home without my parents. Nobody spoke to me in the beginning but lots of people leant over the bed prodding and pushing my abdomen and talking amongst themselves. I was to have an operation immediately they said as there was danger of the appendix bursting.
Going on the trolley without a word being spoken and wheeled into the theatre with a conglomeration of instruments and equipment was terrifying. Then a gas mask was placed over my face. I struggled to no avail and knew no more until I woke up in the hospital ward with other folk. As the children’s ward was full I was put in with women. This was a blessing because they liked to fuss over me and as they missed their own children (in those days people under 16 weren’t allowed to visit) treated me with kindness.
For three days a stern faced nurse had asked me ‘have your bowels moved’? I didn’t know what bowels were and was too scared to ask. I thought it could be something I had done that was wrong so I just said NO. What a mistake! My fear meant enduring an enema and I was horrified by both the procedure and the end results.
I was so excited about going to school. I would try on my crisp white blouse, practice tying the knot in my tie and adjusting the sash of my navy blue serge gym slip. I counted the sleeps and each day packed and unpacked my small tan leather school satchel. I gloated over the twelve coloured pencils in their brightly coloured box. Checked the lead pencils were still sharp and stroked the as yet unused white eraser. Life was going to be great. I was 5. After a week at school I became a little uncertain of life in the class room. I was a chatterbox and as I didn’t have siblings and my Father was rarely home I even talked to myself.
The teacher told me not to talk but of course I couldn’t help myself. She marched to my desk holding large scissors and told me to stick out my tongue. I shrank in fear as she informed the class that this is what would happen to everyone if they talked at the wrong time. Hanging on to one of my plaits and opening and closing her metal scissors, she held my head firmly until I began to scream. Then she said I could have one more chance. I fainted.
My parents and I walked to church and as we progressed the group grew in size as other members of the congregation were encountered along the way. Everyone went to the ‘big church’ and then after half an hour the children walked in crocodile formation down the aisle, out into the vestry and into the church hall for Sunday school.
This was an escape from sitting still and listening to our minister drone on about things I had little understanding of. He loved to lecture his flock and keep them in line. I would carry a newly shined penny in a little silver hard backed purse that hung from my wrist on a chain and place it in a bowl for the poor black, heathen, African children!
Sunday school started with a chorus and I loved to sing along. ‘The Wise Man Built His House Upon A Rock’ was amongst my favourites and I belted it out. The Sunday school teacher asked me to sing quietly as I was tone deaf and out of tune with the other children. I was mortified and turned bright red. The problem got worse as the teacher later suggested I just mime so as not to spoil the singing. The class began to snigger and I burst into tears. It was a terrible realisation that I couldn’t be part of singing the choruses.
I endured this for months before my Mother relented and allowed me to stay in the ‘big church’ with her and I was determined as soon as I was old enough there would be no more church or singing hymns for me. However, while I was at home there was no choice so it was many years before I could waken up on Sunday with a great feeling of relief that I didn’t have to spend my morning miming whilst others lifted their voices in praise.
The local police man was the next cause of panic for me. After a couple of years I was allowed to walk from school to my home. The walk was down a lane named ‘Daddy Winkers Lane’ and it had plots of market gardens, trees, birds and a babbling brook that ran under a lovely old stone bridge. I would swing my arms, run, hop and skip my way home. One day as I looked over the top of the bridge I saw a beautiful doll lying by the edge of the water. I wanted to get it before it was swept further down the river. I raced home, pleaded with my Mother to return to the bridge and with wellington boots on we climbed down the bank. Then the horror began, it wasn’t a doll it was a newborn baby. The policeman arrived and asked me questions. I believed he thought I had put the baby in the river and was a murderer. It took a while to explain I was the first person on the scene and a police helper and not someone to be locked up.
Anyway over the years, hospitals, schools, churches and policemen became objects of terror for me.
My Mother was hospitalised for a long time. As I wasn’t 16 I wasn’t allowed to go to visit and I became very sad and missed her greatly. I was 13 but I was a tall girl and so I set about planning how to get into the hospital ward. From my mother’s wardrobe I chose an overcoat with a large beaver lamb collar that came up high on my neck. Then a cloche hat that pulled well down on my head, a pair of kid gloves, matching handbag and Cuban heeled shoes. I looked good and I was sure I could pass as a young lady.
I had to take two buses to get to the City Hospital and although very nervous I planned how I would speak, how I would walk and what to do if I got caught. At the entrance to the women’s ward lots of people waited for the bell to allow visiting. The wards were very long and held many people. I was scared I might not find my Mother. Finally the bell clanged and I asked for the ward for Mrs Bell. I was careful not to look up but I needn’t have worried because the nurse on duty was too busy to bother with me.
I walked along the corridor, found the right ward, went past the nurses station and I spotted my Mother several beds along without any visitors. When I went up to her bedside she gasped in utter surprise. We hugged and kissed and she kept saying how amazing I looked and she wouldn’t have recognised me in the street. I had brought a small posy of flowers from our garden and a bar of chocolate. When the bell sounded for me to leave it was heartbreaking for us both but I had now seen my Mother and knew she would return home in a short time.
This was my first encounter of challenging laws and it was to be a few more years before I travelled to Trafalgar Square and began a life where I felt free to question anything I was not comfortable with.