The Teaching Autobiography, Contents: Chapter 1 Chapter 2 Chapter 3 Chapter 4 Chapter 5 Chapter 6 Chapter 7 Chapter 8 Chapter 9 Chapter 10 Chapter 11 Chapter 12 Chapter 13 Chapter 14 Chapter 15 Chapter 16 Chapter 17 Photo 1 Photo 2 Photo 3 Photo 4
I was the youngest of three girls, Muriel, Mary, who was born deaf and myself, Ann (1). There was not quite three years difference between Muriel and myself. I was just two years old when we left Dorking and have only two memories of it. This is not really a memory but a picture formed from an often repeated incident. The three of us clad in our red nursery pinafores had scrambled out of the window to prance gaily along a small parapet two storeys up until our horrified mother caught sight of us. The following are genuine memories: the first of being wheeled in a pram along a cinder path watching a small stream meandering between water weeds. The second was of going to a square brick house covered with ivy and being greeted by an old man with white whiskers who took me into the garden and said I might choose any flower I liked. I remember my joy in choosing an enormous red peony.
I have rather a hazy memory of Guildford, our next home. I fell on a spiked chair when climbing to look at the stars through a skylight window and I remember discovering a patch of white violets just before we left and wishing I had found it earlier. I can clearly see the broad high street of the town, with its shops on either side climbing a steep hill and near the top a large square gilt clock which hung out over the street; and also the humped bridge at the bottom of the hill spanning the river Wey but as we often went to Guildford after we had moved to Bramley to be near my grandmother, the years and their memories may have got mixed.
We were very happy at Bramley a little village not far from Guildford. I think we were lucky children. Our parents were in accord in their rather advanced ideas and we were allowed an unusual amount of freedom for girls in those days. I, for instance, was allowed to ramble all over the countryside by myself.
Manners they considered important and deliberate disobedience was a major offence of which we were not often guilty. Mary and I were spoken of as 'the little ones'. There was a wider gulf between Muriel and myself than was warranted by the difference in our ages. Our temperaments were unlike, nor did we like or dislike the same things. Muriel enjoyed companionship; she liked going to church. I would rather be by myself and in those days very much disliked going to church. To be shut up inside, to listen to long sermons and an endless litany was not for me compensated by wearing our best clothes and meeting our friends when the service was over.
Our appearance, too, was so different. Muriel was a really attractive child with waving gold hair, regular features and wistful blue eyes and she graced her pretty frocks. I was freckled, with unruly brown hair and a nose which my father frankly dubbed as snub. I was dressed in monotonous sailor suits, blue serge in winter, white duck in summer. No doubt they suited my style but I found them dull and longed for frills and soft colours. This may have had something to do with what my father called: "Ann's Sunday headaches", but my mother, who had a vivid memory of my being sick in church at the age of six, took them more seriously. Sometimes on Saturday night I asked for liquorice powder, a horrible concoction but which ensured our not going to church next morning. My sister Mary was more like me but better looking. When she was home we were always together and apt to get into all sorts of mischief. But from the age of six she went to a boarding school in Brighton where she was taught to lip read, so that her deafness should be as little handicap to her as possible.
On weekdays Muriel and I were taught by our governess. On Saturdays our parents spent the day following their own amusements, but Sunday was our day. After church was over we often went for a walk with our father. If the weather was cold he would play a kind of running hideandseek with us and if it was hot, he would tell us stories. I can remember he told us the tale of 'The Merchant of Venice' on one of these walks. I can still see the ways we took and although I never saw Bramley again after I was thirteen, it has been one of my amusements to map out those walks and so to join up the countryside.
After the midday Sunday dinner was over, we were allowed to do anything we liked that did not involve making a noise. This was a privilege not shared by most of our contemporaries, who had most of their toys put away on Saturday night and were confined to Sunday books. After a special tea much nicer than our nursery one, either my mother or my father would read to us books like 'The Water Babies' or tales of 'King Arthur's Knights' and later, the 'Jungle Books' and the 'Just So Stories'. Before bedtime we sang hymns and I wearied my mother by always choosing: 'All things bright and beautiful'. Then since our governess was out for the day, we put ourselves to bed and the day would end in a romp when our father came to tuck us up and put out our light. As soon as he was in the door, one of us would lock it and try to hide the key. There followed the torture of being tickled until our mother would end the racket and restore peace. Afterwards sleep would come to the sound of her playing, usually some Bethoven or Schumann, her favourite composers. She was a gifted pianist and we were lucky children to fall asleep as we so often did to the sound of her music.
Love of music, of animals and of exploring the countryside, have been my three chief pleasures and all three had their roots in these Bramley days. In spite of disapproving aunts and their grim warnings about tramps, I was allowed to ramble about by myself, both before breakfast and on Saturdays. Usually I hunted for flowers and soon learned where the earliest primroses grew, discovered patches of wild white violets with that enchanting touch of purple at the back of their petals. I knew the bluebell and foxglove woods, where the honeysuckle was most lavish and where the best blackberries and mushrooms might be found.
I did have one adventure with a tramp. I wanted some primroses to send to our governess who had left us to get married. For once Muriel came with me and we went to a place where a canal started. When we got there we found the gate barred with barbed wire and a new notice board with 'Trespassers will be prosecuted' painted on it. This was too much for us and we reluctantly turned away. Muriel went home but I would not give up and set off at a tangent across country to another copse I knew of. I remember climbing up the bank from a lane into a field and at the edge of the wood I saw a skull. I do not know why it gave me such a shock. I think I knew it was a sheep's head but from that moment I went fearfully and slipping inside, filled my basket as quickly as I could without joy. Turning out into the field again at another gap I must have disturbed a sleeping tramp. He jumped up with a shout and I fled in terror, utterly demoralised. Probably he was as startled as I was. I know he called out placatingly. I did not stop but tore down the lane breathless and crying, while in contradiction declaring to myself; "I don't care! I don't care! I've got my primroses!", but I never told anyone of the incident.
Close to our house there was a bridge over a river with a sunny daisycovered mound by it, for which I had great affection. I wasted a lot of time there watching the river slip by, or looking across the meadow to a stand of trees where there was a rockery. Nearby was a swamp where yellow iris and marigolds grew, a temptation when in flower, because any attempt to get them ended in wet feet, muddy clothes and trouble at home.
I often walked to a common beyond the next village which was the home of ducks and geese, to collect their fallen feathers. My father gave me a penny for a dozen stiff quills to clean his pipe but what chiefly attracted me were the soft curling feathers, white or grey, which I kept in boxes and graded to size. These, together with jars of frog spawn, bird eggs and many other odds and ends, made up what my mother described as 'Ann's litter'.
Then, my father left for South Africa when I was twelve, I was given his dressing room facing South. In this little room I had an old bureau with three drawers. The top one opened into a writing desk with cubbyholes and little drawers behind. I adored it and how glad my mother was to have all my rubbish confined to this one room. Nevertheless my habits were not all painful to her. She always said I could find her some flowers even in winter. Another source of happiness to us were our summer holidays in Devon or Cornwall. In those days few people went as far West. There we were allowed to run wild, except on Sundays when our white muslin frocks and stiff sunhats were a miserable contrast to the freedom of jersey, kilts, bare legs and sand shoes that brightened our week days. We bathed, all three of us learning to swim by the time we were seven, paddled after shrimps, scrambled over rocks after prawns and the miracle, once or twice, of an unlucky lobster.
We went for picnics and explored new places, having a glorious time from the moment we rushed into the corridor when the train had left Exeter, to catch our first glimpse of the sea, to the last moment coming home when we slipped out to bid it a mournful goodbye.
My father left England for Johannesburg when I was twelve. His going made the first conscious break in my life. He had been apt to treat me with a little extra severity, rather as if I were the boy of the family, due perhaps to my habits and also because in some ways we were alike and that must have irritated him. He disliked tears, fuss over hurts, or any signs of fear. Tears came easily to me then and I found their suppression difficult. Once I touched a tube of seccotine he had left for a moment and made it ooze. When he saw it he rapped out: "Did you touch it?" Too hastily I said: "No!" I can remember now the blaze of his blue eyes and the contempt of his: "No? You mean yes!" He said nothing more but I felt I would have given anything to have been able to put the clock back and answer differently.
There is just one experience in those years that I knew, even then, came from outside my conscious mind. It happened, I think, when I was about seven. Till then I had said my prayers parrot fashion, without a thought of their meaning. Besides the usual God Bless ....... I had learned that nice child's prayer:
'Gentle Jesus, shepherd, hear me; bless thy little lamb tonight.
Through the darkness be thou near me, keep me safe till morning light.
All day long thy hand has led me and I thank thee for thy care;
Thou hast warmed and fed and clothed me, listen to my evening prayer.
May my sins be all forgiven, bless the friends I love so well;
Take me when I die to heaven, happy there with thee to dwell.'
This particular night it seemed as if someone halted me and taking each line showed me its meaning. I can remember my surprise and pleasure. If I had been asked about it, then I should have answered: "Somebody told me.", but if pressed I should have become confused. There was no one that I saw or heard. It was inside my head but even at that age I knew it was outside my own thought. It had a very definite result. From then on I knew that was the right way to say my prayers and if I did not, it was because I was careless or lazy.
(1) In this autobiography Kath named herself 'Ann'. All important names of people and most names for places in New Zealand have been changed. Back to text.