Saturday 4th February
Harriet and Jane loved to cut out the models and clothes on the back of Bunty, pasting Bunty’s be-vested and be-panted little body on to an empty Corn Flake box, then hacking with a pair of old scissors would cut it out again, and with a piece of cardboard inserted in the base at right angles would stand her up and hang on all of her clothes, carefully folding tabs A and B around her shoulders and waist. And Harriet would make up plays where the different Buntys would go shopping or to the Pictures with their Mummy’s, and Jane would have to move them around on cue, and cock their little be-hatted heads towards each other as Harriet would make up the conversation for Bunty when she would meet her dear friend Bunty on the way to the park, dressed in her white pompom-ed coat, skating boots in one hand and red and white handbag in the other. They never tired of Bunty, and Harriet, who could read more fluently than Jane, would recite the story every week as Jane followed her finger across the page, desperately trying to convert the letters into the words coming up moments before Harriet spoke them.
* * *
Harriet thought Jane was such a baby; she never seemed to want to grow up at all. Harriet was dying to grow up, to be a teenager and a woman and all of that stuff, she didn’t know if Jane even thought about tomorrow, let alone the rest of her life, she just seemed content to live in the moment. Harriet was always planning her life and even though she was in no position to fulfill these ambitions it didn’t stop her having them. She would be going to the Grammar School, that was a given, after all she was top of the class, then it would have to be University. Her father was a Cambridge man, and he was always talking about his University days, and the College he was at. He would watch the Boat Race every year on the television. He wasn’t really interested in any other sports; he barely watched any television, except for the News, the boring old news. Even Sunday Night at the London Palladium with those glamorous Tiller Girls all dancing with their spangly legs going up high in the air, Jane and Harriet were allowed to stay up and watch it, but their Daddy would be reading his paper, hardly noticing the girls or the television. Harriet used to practice in her bedroom kicking her legs up higher and higher, and would dream of being a Tiller girl and living the high life up in London, getting invited to parties with film stars and being adored by everyone. ‘Heaven knows what Jane was going to do with her life,’ thought Harriet; she wasn’t even sure if she was clever enough to pass her eleven plus, and that was one thing Harriet couldn’t help her with. She would have to manage that herself.
* * *
Harriet easily passed her eleven plus and was starting for Grammar School in a few weeks time, and her father was really proud of her. He knew she was incredibly bright and always had excellent reports and he wondered what she would be when she grew up. He wouldn’t have even minded if she had become a lawyer like him, hopefully a cleverer and more devoted one than he was. He hadn’t known what he had been thinking when he started reading Law, some brilliant career at the Bar he supposed, defending murderers or complicated arguments about some obscure aspect of the law. The reality was that he was dealing with property and disputes about bits of land, or empty industrial units, or writing to tenants about rents outstanding in a small country Practice where nothing of any excitement ever happened at all. The same old grind day after day, week after week, until he turned into a replica of his own father, scarcely talking to his children, and burying himself in his work to stop himself from going completely mad. He was just managing to keep his head above water financially, but as soon as he seemed to get some money in his bank it would need to be spent on something or other. In Phil’s case it certainly wasn’t trying to keep up with the Joneses, he had no desire to emulate Jones with his dry sarcasm and logical way of looking at everything, far too dour for his liking. He kept thinking he had gone into the wrong business; he should have been in commerce of some kind, buying and selling, the excitement of the market, instead of this dry legal career. He had tried a few small ventures, but they always seemed to come to nothing, and they were more trouble getting out of than they had been worth in the first place. Better give up those silly ideas altogether really, just accept his lot. he had two lovely girls and a still very pretty wife, what more could anyone expect. Looking back he had done it, at nearly forty he had made it, or at least on the surface it looked as if he had made it, and really that was what mattered most wasn’t it. People looked up to him, to them, the Wilkinsons. They were ‘somebodys’ in this town, though no-one knew how hard he had to work to hold it all together.
* * *
All too soon the girls were grown out of Bunty and even the few dolls they had, and like Harriet before her Jane was on my way to the Big School, the Grammar School. She could remember for weeks they were drilled and tested on old 11 plus exam papers until they could do it in their sleep, and almost all of them got pass marks every time and all the other girls in her class of about 12 passed the actual exam without any trouble at all.
It was only later that she learnt that the kids from the council houses, who went to the local Junior School, the 30 or more kids to a class state school, weren’t prepared at all. One day they were simply told that the fourth year pupils were to stay behind after Assembly, and then were sat at desks and told not to turn the paper over until the Headmaster told them to. Totally unprepared they were told to answer the questions and write their name and address on the form just as it was written on the blackboard. Inevitably, at least one child headed his barely completed paper just as the Headmaster had done ‘Joe Bloggs, 1 Brick Lane’.
And there in the bewildering atmosphere of their first ever exam, and having no clue what it was all about, the wheat was sorted from the chaff. There, as they were asked the next number in the following sequence, or if milk is to cow, what are eggs to, and other such brain-teasers designed by the clever-clogs at the Ministry of Education to accurately assess a child’s Intelligence Quotient, their futures were decided. The lucky few who by chance or some native skill actually understood and completed the questions were rewarded by being separated from their friends forever and much to their parent’s pride got a place at Grammar School.
The vast majority were rejected, and condemned to a second class and second rate Secondary Modern School, where they would never get the chance to take G C E exams or to learn Latin. At least their parents would be able to afford the uniform without too many sacrifices, and when they got to fifteen they would go down the foundry or work on the farm like their dads before them, but they would also learn how to change a three-pin plug, and how to use a fork and spade, and how to strip down a motor-bike engine, and how to cook a few dinners, and how to sew and darn, so maybe it wasn’t all bad. Strange now that a different folk-memory exists of how wonderful it all was before the ‘awful conformity’ of Comprehensives, talk about rose-tinted spectacles.
And the important thing was that you ended up with the right children in the right schools, while preserving the fig-leaf of democracy and entitlement and a fair chance for all children of whatever backgrounds. How pleased they must have been with themselves, at their Masonic lodges or at the golf club, that they had interpreted the legislation so equably and fairly.
But it wasn’t this, or the realisation of that injustice of it that began to wake Jane up. No, that was all down to Music, and Harriet of course.