Thursday, 6 December 2018



Browsing the racks of birthday and Christmas cards in shops we can see the variations of 'titles' given to grandmothers. I wonder if there are regional differences - is it only in Liverpool that they are called Nin? Though I have yet to see this on a card. None of my friends' grandchildren call them Grandmother; Grandma isn't unusual, although Nan, Nanny, or Nana are more common. Or maybe that's just in the north? I have known a couple of families where children called their grandparents Mother and Father, which always puzzled me. Both my grandfathers died before I was born so the question of what to call them never arose, and there are fewer variations on the card racks, most of them are to 'Grandad' - usually with only one 'd', rather than 'Granddad'.

When I was a child, most of my friends called their grandmothers Gran, or Granny.
I called my dad's mother 'Big Granny' - although she was probably only about 5'2" tall - because my mum's mother was only 4'9" and was therefore 'Little Granny'! My two grandmothers couldn't have been more different and inter-family relationships were never cordial. The two women, linked by the marriage of their son and daughter, never met. Neither attended the wedding, in Little Granny's case probably because it wasn't taking place in a Catholic church. I was told Big Granny didn't know her son was marrying 'a foreigner' and a Catholic at that, until after the register office ceremony when my dad took his new wife home to meet his mother!

Little Granny was a Spanish Catholic and didn't speak English despite living in Liverpool for almost fifty years. Having brought up three children in the city, I can only surmise that her lack of English was a conscious attempt to hang on to her Spanish identity. She died at the age of 71, when I was only ten years old. I have written extensively about her life in Spain and Liverpool in Chasing Shadows but have never put my memories of Big Granny down on paper, so perhaps it's time to redress the balance slightly.

Little Granny

Big Granny was Welsh Chapel and lived to the ripe old age of 92, by which time I was in my early thirties and she was great-grandmother to my three children. She lived in a large, old house at the junction of two cobbled streets in Bootle, Merseyside. The front door opened onto a small, sooty garden, the side door onto a cobbled yard surrounded by a high brick wall, topped with the standard security measure of the time in that area - broken glass set in concrete! At the furthest corner of the yard stood the brick-built lavatory that was, quite literally, to prove the death of my grandmother in her 93rd year.

Big Granny's house was stuffed full of furniture and knick-knacks, the floors hidden beneath rag rugs made from long-forgotten garments, the walls covered with pictures, photographs and framed embroideries. As you entered the long, gloomy hall, with its high ceiling and dark walls, the first door on the left led into the front parlour. The door to this room was kept locked. It was the room where one of my aunts had died, aged 27, after contracting rheumatic fever - reputedly due to sleeping in cold, damp barns during her stint in the Land Army during World War II. Years later, when I was in my early teens and taking piano lessons, Granny would - on very rare occasions - unlock this door and give me permission to play the huge Canadian organ that stood against one wall. I was always left alone in the room, sitting on a high stool, feet barely able to reach to pump the pedals, trying to coax a wheezing tune from its depths. Conscious of the privilege I'd been granted, there was also the niggling awareness that somehow I was invading a hallowed space. I felt like apologising to the smiling woman in the black-edged photograph who looked down on me as I played.

It was the room next door - the kitchen - that was the hub of family life. Of course, the kitchen wasn't strictly a kitchen, despite the black-leaded range, since all the cooking and baking took place in the 'back-kitchen', or scullery.

I was fascinated by these fire-dogs when I was a child.
Known in the family as 'the Dutch boy and girl', they stood
either side of the black-leaded range and
were rescued by a cousin and lovingly
restored before Big Granny's house was demolished.

My most vivid memory of the kitchen on my Sunday visits, is that it was nearly always full of men - Big Granny's sons, my dad amongst them - swapping yarns, smoking, drinking tea and eating home-made fruit loaf. I can still see Granny quite clearly, bustling around the room, cutting more bread, replenishing cups of tea, while joining in the banter - she looked like a story-book grandma, glasses perched on the end of her nose, her ample, 'cottage-loaf' figure topped by a bun of thick grey hair that, when I was a child, was still streaked with auburn.

None of the married sons brought their wives to these Sunday afternoon get-togethers. One son never married and still lived at home - an engagement came to a disappointing end while he was in the army during the war. An unmarried daughter also lived at home and a married daughter who lived next door would pop round - minus her husband - and the two sisters would try to make themselves heard above the general din. Often, someone was playing the piano, there was a piano in the kitchen as well as an organ in the parlour. The air was always thick with smoke, two uncles smoked pipes, the others - and my aunts - smoked cigarettes. With hindsight, it isn't surprising that they all died well before their allotted span, what is surprising is that sadly, Big Granny lived on long enough to see most of her children buried.

So, what was I doing during these visits, apart from my occasional forays into the front parlour? I don't remember my cousins, or my older siblings, being there at the same time as me. Was I the centre of attention then - with fond uncles and aunts patting me on the head, asking how I was doing at school, congratulating me on passing the 11-plus? Well, no. To all intents and purposes I was invisible. The old adage 'children should be seen and not heard' still held good in the 1940s/50s. Big Granny would absent-mindedly pass me a piece of fruit loaf from time to time and when I was leaving put a shilling in my hand and smile, as if a little surprised that I was still there. If I visited without my dad, when none of the uncles were there, the situation hardly changed. I still sat in silence, but in a quiet, dull room, listening to Big Granny's knitting needles clicking and clacking; my aunt wheezing as she lit yet another cigarette, while the tiny bird in the cuckoo clock ticked off each endless quarter-hour as it sprang out of its little door.

There was never a cuddle from Big Granny, even when I was little. Birthdays passed without notice, and sadly I have no idea whether she was fond of me or not. Even when the house was full, I felt more alone in the midst of this large, close-knit family than I ever was in my Spanish grandmother's house. For there, despite the language barrier, I knew I was loved.

It is only recently, having spent years researching my Spanish side of the family, that I have learned more about my Welsh grandmother's life. My father rarely spoke about his childhood and never mentioned his own grandparents. It wouldn't surprise me if I now know more about them than he did, especially my Welsh great-grandmother, who died before he was born. Did he know that she was married three times in three years? Mary was thirty when she married for the first time and she was widowed five months later. Within a couple of months she had remarried but was widowed again after only two years, left with a young son. Less than a year later she was already married to my great-grandfather - a widower with two young sons - and they had a daughter, my grandmother. Two more daughters and a son followed, but by the time my gran was sixteen, her mother had died aged only 49.

 My great-grandmother

I never formed a close bond with Big Granny, I was fond of her, but she always seemed rather 'distant'; uncovering all this information about her family background has led me to think of her more sympathetically. I've yet to research how my great-grandmother died, whether she was ill for a long time, but eventually it must have fallen to my gran to bring up three younger siblings. Her brother was only four when their mother died and was still living with her at the time of the 1911 census, when he was 20 and she was married with three sons aged from four to seven. In all, Big Granny had twelve children, three of whom died in infancy, and by the time the grandchildren came along perhaps she'd had enough of kids!

Her long life came to an abrupt end, she didn't linger with a debilitating illness. It was November, bitterly cold, and the yard, and therefore the route to the outside 'lav' was frozen over. Granny slipped on the ice but picked herself up and didn't tell anyone. It was a couple of days later when a married daughter, who had come to stay because her sister was terminally ill in hospital, noticed that her mother was having difficulty dressing herself. Persuaded into admitting what had happened, the doctor was called and discovered she had a broken collar-bone. For the first time in her long life, Granny was admitted to hospital and 'slipped away' six hours later, just three weeks before her daughter died from lung cancer.

I don't have special Christmas memories of either of my grandmothers. I was never taken on outings or had my photograph taken with them, but perhaps that had more to do with the times we were living in. My own children, born in the 1960s/70s, loved, and were loved by, their grandparents and have many happy memories. Now Christmas 2018 has just passed and over the holiday period we've had fun with our own four lovely grandchildren, who call me 'Nanny'. Although they live a couple of hundred miles away, we spend as much time as possible with them, in our home and theirs, and on holiday. I hope that in years to come, when we're long gone, they will have happy memories of the times we've spent together, that they will know how much they were loved, and how precious they were to us.

That is the best legacy we can leave them.

Image from Pixabay

Friday, 14 September 2018

Smithdown Litfest 2017, Prof Phil Scraton: Hillsborough The Truth

The 2018 Smithdown Litfest starts tomorrow - my tickets are booked and I'm looking forward to as interesting and varied programme as last year!

When the very first Smithdown Litfest was announced last year, one name immediately caught my attention. I'd tried to get tickets for a Phil Scraton talk at another event but despite my name being on a waiting list, I was unlucky - in 2017 I was determined I would be in the audience with my husband, Jim.

On the cover of Phil's updated edition of 'Hillsborough: The Truth', Andy Burnham, former MP, now Mayor of Manchester, writes:

"The full truth about Hillsborough would never have been known were it not for Phil Scraton's meticulous efforts over many years - he has done a huge service not just to the Hillsborough families but to this country".

I had a particular reason for wanting to hear Phil Scraton's talk. Along with so many thousands of people, the date April 15th, 1989 is burnt into my memory. Jim, and our youngest son, just 17, had set off for Leppings Lane in high spirits and at 3pm I settled down to see the match on TV with my mother-in-law. We watched the tragic events unfolding in disbelief, not knowing whether our loved ones were safe. No mobile phones in those days. It was very late that night before they arrived home, physically, although not emotionally, unscathed. In the days, months, years, decades, that followed, our anger grew as the lies, slurs, character assassination of football fans - and Liverpool people in general - were perpetuated and spread around the world. Sadly, my mother-in-law died long before the truth that we all knew, was finally brought to light.

The venue for Professor Scraton's talk was the Unitarian Church in Ullet Road, A Grade 1 listed building, and a most magnificent setting. Arriving early, we had time to explore the interior of the church and the cloister leading to the church hall. Whether you have religious beliefs or not, this building merits a visit - stained glass windows designed by Edward Burne-Jones, exquisite carvings, paintings, and marble memorials to famous Liverpool families including the Roscoes and Rathbones.

It seemed a particularly appropriate setting for Professor Scraton's talk, since one of Gerald Moira's allegorical paintings on the ceiling of the Library depicts The Triumph of Truth.

With two LFC season ticket holders in the family, the event with Howard Gayle was another not to be missed. This was held at the same venue and Howard was in conversation with R Lund Ansnes. Ms Ansnes is the author of five books on LFC, a journalist and broadcaster, but on this occasion the spotlight was on Liverpool FC's first black footballer and his newly released book, '61 Minutes in Munich', written in conjunction with Simon Hughes. Howard first appeared for Liverpool in October 1980 but was to wear the red shirt only five times, scoring one goal, his last game being in May, 1981. He is best remembered for his appearance in the 2nd leg of the European Cup semi-final at Bayern Munich when he was called from the substitutes bench to replace Kenny Dalglish - suffering from an injured ankle - and "ran the Bayern Munich defenders ragged", eventually being brought off after being repeatedly fouled. He was on the substitutes bench for the final in Paris and received a Cup Winners' Medal.

As well as talking about his footballing career - and the horrific racial abuse he suffered as a black player - Howard spoke about the difficulties of his early life in Toxteth and Norris Green when he was involved in a "world of petty criminality" and the difference football made to his life. His talk was a powerful mix of social history and autobiography, beginning with the history of slavery, through to Howard's own family's roots and ending in Dallas in 1986. The book is dedicated to his family and also begins with a quote from Nelson Mandela in 1995:

"For to be free is
not merely to cast off one's chains,
but to live in a way
that respects and enhances the
freedom of others."

The audience were well looked after by the Reverend Philip Waldron and his team and after both events in the Unitarian Church we were able to speak to Professor Scraton and Howard Gayle, have books signed, mingle with other listeners, exchanging comments on what we'd heard - and enjoy a glass of wine!

Unfortunately, it wasn't possible for me to attend all the events on offer at the 2017 Smithdown Litfest, but I was delighted to be free on the Tuesday afternoon to hear June Francis, Family Saga author, talk about her life and her work. This event took place in the relaxed atmosphere of the Penny Lane Development Centre where again the audience were well looked after, although, it being 2 o'clock in the afternoon, we enjoyed tea or coffee rather than alcohol.

June Francis should have been born in Liverpool, but the local hospital had been bombed and her mother was evacuated to Blackpool for the birth, mother and baby returning to their home in Anfield soon after. June married in 1967 and with her new husband moved to Litherland where three sons were born. (I was interested to hear that she studied for her 'O' Level English Language at night school, as I'd taken 4 'O' levels at night school when my three sons were young, fulfilling a promise I'd made to my English teacher after leaving Grammar School early to start work in a city centre office.)

The driving force that set June on her very successful writing career was the opportunity to use the extra family income to pay school fees. She joined the Crosby Writers' Group and was also encouraged by the wife of the Vicar of her local church. She was in her forties when she took the first step, writing magazine articles. It took a year of submissions before she had one published in My Weekly.

Following her magazine successes, June began submitting to Mills and Boon and after two years of re-writing, her historical romance 'The Bride Price' was published in 1987. More historical novels followed, but June's dream was to write family sagas set in her home town and her success in this genre was soon established. The titles of many of her novels are taken from songs from the era in which they're set: Memories are Made of This; It Had to Be You; and Love Letters in the Sand, titles which immediately set the scene.

Because June's novels are set in the city she knows and loves so well, the settings are realistic and whenever I walk up Mount Pleasant, past the hotels on the left-hand side, I remember 'A Mother's Duty', and the difficulties Kitty faces as a young widow with three sons, trying to run such a hotel.

I always enjoy talks by authors and June Francis's was particularly interesting. It was also good to see authors Lancashire-born Freda Lightfoot - Sunday Times Bestselling Author - and Annie Holland, writer of the delightful 'Stella the Stork' and 'All at Sea' children's books, present in the audience.

After enjoying some of the events at the 2017 Smithdown LitFest, I am very much looking forward to this year's programme. All events are free and many are already fully booked, but there may still be tickets available for:

Saturday 15th September - Crime author Luca Veste, 7.30-9.00pm at Ullet Road Unitarian Church.

Wednesday 19th September - Andy Grant, author of 'You'll Never Walk...' 7.30-9pm at Ullet Road Unitarian Church.

Saturday 22nd September - Peter Turner, 'Film Stars Don't Die in Liverpool', 7-8.30pm at Ullet Road Unitarian Church.

Smithdown's Litfest's patron is crime writer Ashley Dyer and tickets are available from

Saturday, 16 June 2018

China's First Emperor and The Terracotta Warriors: The World Museum, Liverpool.

This exhibition, at Liverpool's World Museum, opened on 9th February and will run until 28th October. I visited it on 13th February and in my diary that night I wrote how impressed I'd been with the magnificent display.

There are so many historical facts about Qin Shi Huang's reign chronicled throughout the exhibition that it would be impossible for me to repeat them all here. China's First Emperor was only 13 years old when he came to power in 246BC, by the age of 22 he was in full control of the Government - and at 49 he was dead! It was a short life; filled with seemingly impossible achievements, and great cruelty. This post is a reflection of my journey through the exhibition.

As I visit Liverpool almost weekly, it was easy for me to buy my tickets in advance in the Museum's shop, but for those visiting from further afield booking on line is hassle-free. Because I was booking so early in the season, and because I was free during the week, I had plenty of choice when it came to picking a day and time. I timed my visit for 10.30am on a Tuesday morning. Although the slots are timed for every half hour, once you enter there is no restriction on how long you spend viewing the objects on display, although good manners should prompt you to make room for those coming behind you!

At the time I'd chosen, it took only minutes to be admitted to a small room, where a short film acts as an introduction. Showing wild horses, and battles between Warring States in a land of contrasts, it sets the scene for the exhibition. Like most people, I'd heard of the Terracotta Warriors and seen film and photographs of the site in China's city of Xi'an. I also know people who have travelled to China and seen them 'in situ', so I didn't know quite what to expect. Would we view them from a raised walkway with rows of Warriors lined up below us, a miniature version of the original site? No, that would have been an impossible  undertaking. Walking through the exhibition you soon realise what an achievement it was for Liverpool's World Museum to bring to the city just a sample of the 8,000 life-sized Warriors, discovered 2,200 years after Emperor Qin's death. There may not be a large number of them on display, but they are certainly impressive.

The average height of the Warriors is over 6ft tall - and as they are each standing on a small plinth, they seem rather bigger than life-sized to someone of 5'1"!

Walking through the exhibition, I found it difficult to comprehend the immense power of Emperor Qin, who was after all only a 13-year old boy when he became Emperor. How was he able commandeer a workforce of 700,000, from all corners of the Chinese Empire, who would work for the next 30 years creating a mausoleum guarded by a vast army of 8,000 terracotta soldiers, along with 40,000 bronze weapons, to protect him in the after-life? And it wasn't just soldiers, excavations some 2,200 years after the Emperor's death uncovered a terracotta stable boy buried with real horses - horses were a symbol of power, wealth and status - along with chariots to transport him through his Eternal Kingdom, with terracotta musicians, acrobats, and concubines to keep him amused and occupied.

Interspersed throughout the exhibition are many treasures: a gold, duck-shaped belt buckle; spiritual representations of the seasons in bronze - a black turtle, a red bird, a green dragon, a white tiger. Far too many to list here, although one did stand out for me, resting on the top of a coffin was the sole of a shoe fashioned in jade - believed to protect the dead from evil spirits. Not only valuable treasure has been excavated, there are many examples of household objects, giving us an insight into ordinary life, including roof tiles, a horse-shaped pot and vessels for water and cooking.

It is hard to imagine how a man so occupied with his spiritual and physical well-being in the after-life could behave with such cruelty while he was alive. Was it in order to prove his absolute power that he had writers, philosophers and scholars executed - or was he at heart a frightened man, fearful of being challenged and losing his grip on his vast Kingdom? Ruling over it during his lifetime was not enough, he wanted to be immortal, to be in command of the whole universe even after death. In order to keep the tomb a secret, thousands of officials, servants, warriors and horses were killed,  and craftsmen were buried alive. On his death, those concubines who were childless were buried with him, perhaps to exclude the possibility of a challenge from an heir in the after-life! The sacrifice of human life on such a scale to satisfy the vanity of one man is beyond belief.

The most visually striking part of the exhibition comes towards the end when you enter a room and see seven huge warriors standing, or kneeling, side by side. This is where there may be a 'log-jam' of visitors as cameras and phones click away to capture the amazing image. However, on the day I visited, the guides were very efficient, giving visitors time to take in all the different details of the Warriors, photographing them from various angles, before gently encouraging people to move along.

(I could say that I haven't included a photograph of all seven warriors so that I don't spoil the effect for those who have yet to visit the exhibition; sadly, the truth is that the one I downloaded, taken, as these were, by the friend who came with me - thank you Pauline - has disappeared from my laptop!)

The irony in Qin Shi Huang's story is that it was due to his fear of death that China's First Emperor died at the age of 49 from mercury poisoning, believing that the compound would grant him eternal life.

The Museum's website describes this exhibition as "...spanning almost 1,000 years of Chinese history; from the conflicts and chaos of the Warring States period to the achievements and legacy of the Qin and Han dynasties" and I can thoroughly recommend it. There is so much to see and to absorb that the one and a half hours I spent there passed far too quickly and I'm planning a second visit. I am confident that, by the end of the exhibition, the numbers of visitors, both local and from far afield, will break all attendance records at the Museum.

The exhibition was organised by National Museums Liverpool, United Kingdom, and the Shaanxi Provincial Cultural Relics Bureau and Shaanxi History Museum, People's Republic of China.

Thursday, 31 August 2017

Nostalgia Part 2

It was a warm afternoon in August 2016 and Jim was catching the train to Lime Street, then the soccer bus to Anfield. I usually go with him on the train then spend the afternoon browsing Liverpool's shops, museums, etc, but I made a last minute decision to leave the train at Huyton and take a stroll around my childhood haunts. Huyton Station has been extended, there are extra platforms and extra subways to access them. As a very young child, the subway terrified me. It was simply a short, downward slope which then branched into two upward slopes, one leading to the Liverpool platform, the other to the platform for Prescot, St Helens and beyond. The problem was, if a train was passing  directly overhead when I was in the subway, I'd go rigid with terror and start screaming, unable to move until the thundering noise of the steam train had faded into the distance. A lifetime later, it's easy to see the reason. During the war, although we lived outside the city we still spent nights below ground in the air-raid shelter in our back garden, listening to the aeroplanes overhead and watching incendiary bombs lighting up the night sky. I had nightmares about that air-raid shelter for years afterwards.

Moving out of the area after my marriage, I still used this station to visit my parents and in-laws and it stayed much the same as I had always remembered it, although Huyton Village was already beginning to change. On my last visit, almost 20 years ago, it was no longer a village. The original council offices, with the children's playground behind, the library, the baby clinic, the essence of what had been a quiet country village, all had long gone.

Now, exiting the station - which wasn't as straightforward as I was expecting - I found it difficult to get my bearings. There used to be a solitary bus-stop, a few yards from the station, where you could catch the No.75 into Liverpool or to Pagemoss to visit my nan. It was in Poplar Bank, outside a former Approved School for Girls. As a child, I was always nervous waiting for that bus - what had the girls done, how long did they stay, and what happened to them when they left? Now, I think of the contrast between their lives and those of the girls who boarded at Huyton College, on the other side of the railway; daughters of well-to-do families. Soon after the end of the war, the College took in a small number of girls from local schools who'd done well in the 11-plus, their fees paid by the Council - but the cost of school dinners and the uniform was way beyond the means of working class families and what I guess was meant as a 'social experiment' wasn't repeated. On the site of the Approved School, which later was renamed a Community Home for Education there's now a bingo hall, and replacing that lone bus stop is a busy bus-station with a bewildering choice of bus routes to - at a guess - almost anywhere this side of the Mersey.

But my journey into the past would be on foot, starting with a walk down Derby Road, or what's left of it.

Brennand's shop has long gone - I can remember my dad taking me into Mr & Mrs Brennand's on my tenth birthday. A money box stood on the shop counter, collecting pennies for charity, I was so taken with it that my dad asked Mr Brennand if he could buy it for me. A ten-shilling note changed hands and I went home happily with my birthday present. I've still got it.


The top picture shows St Michael's Parish Church where I was a bridesmaid at my sister's wedding in 1957 and it's the one spot in Huyton Village that still looks exactly the same as it did then.

This is a much later view of the 'Village'.

Hard to imagine that this is where the Mayfair Cinema once stood.

Turning into Huyton Hey Road, I passed Park Hall, which I remember as the Congregational Church. This is where my mum used to queue to renew the family's ration books, green for under-fives, entitling you to extra milk, and fruit if it came into the shops; blue for over-fives - also with an extra milk ration; and buff-coloured for adults. I can remember the air-raid siren sounding while we were queueing one day, and my mum dragging me along as fast as my short legs would carry me, making for the safety of our air-raid shelter. Fortunately, the all-clear sounded before I ran out of breath. 

Continuing along Huyton Hey Road, I passed under the railway bridge, the road wider, and busier, than I remember it. St Agnes's Roman Catholic church is not the same building I regularly sneaked into with my best friend Pat, it has been replaced with a more modern structure. I say 'sneaked into' because as a non-Catholic I always felt slightly nervous in case the priest - or my dad - saw me and wanted to know what I was doing in there!

On the opposite corner to the church stands Huyton Hey Manor, a listed building known then simply as Manor Farm, which is now a nursing home. And the house that used to be the post office, run many years ago by a family called Bellis, still stands but is no longer a post office. I crossed the street to take a closer look and the GR post-box from my childhood is still there. One of my less pleasant memories is as an under-sized 11-year-old being pushed around by two robust sisters on this very spot, hair pulled, name calling, because I'd passed the 11-plus, and the younger sister had failed. I never did understand the meaning of 'college pudding' as an insult!

Continuing along Hall Lane, none of the shops I remember - Jack's Café, where Pat and I enjoyed the rare treat of a Cream Soda; the fish and chip shop with its two-pennyworth of chips and a six-penny fish, wrapped in newspaper; the sweet shop on the corner; Horace's greengrocery - have survived. But the Seel Arms pub is still there; and the Parish Rooms, where I joined the Brownies, still looks the same, as does St Gabriel's Church next to it, where I was married in 1960.

The slight incline in the road doesn't seem as steep as when I was a child. It was known as 'the brew', I've no idea why, and during the severe winter of 1947 the snow drifts were so deep I couldn't get to my primary school in St. Johns Road.

The road where I used to live has changed beyond recognition. There is a modern building on the corner where the dairy and its shippons used to be. Even as a child, there were no cows in the shippons, but they made great play spaces for me, Pat, and Brenda, the daughter of the family who owned the dairy. The Victorian terraces have long gone, replaced with modern semi-detached houses, but about half-way down the street there is  the terrace where I was brought up, 'two-up-two-down' houses built in the 1930s. Outside toilets, but running hot water, and a long back garden. As I walked past the ten houses I was amazed to see that 'ours', although modernised with a front porch and a rear extension, still has the low, brick front wall topped with iron railings, that my dad built so many years ago! The houses were rented from a private landlord but my dad kept it decorated and in good repair. Now, they're all privately owned.

The memories of all the families who lived in those ten houses during my childhood, and those I'd loved and lost, came flooding back as I retraced my steps towards Huyton Station.

But the temptation to take the long way round, down St John's Road, and along Tarbock Road was too great, despite the heat of the afternoon. I knew that my High School - Childwall Valley - had been demolished to make way for 'executive houses', would my Junior School have suffered the same fate? Past the house where we could buy crab-apples for a penny on our way home from school, carried in the skirt of our frock, the hem gathered up to form a bag. We usually got stomach-ache after stuffing ourselves, but it didn't stop us going back next time. Past new houses called Scholars' Fields, oh no, had they demolished my school? No - Huyton Sylvester County Primary is still there. There are more buildings where the air-raid shelters used to be, but the original building still stands, Girls Entrance on the left, Boys Entrance on the right, although we all played in the same playground and were in mixed classes. The playground looks smaller than when I was a child, although it's much better equipped.

I was very happy in that school, I can remember the names of all my teachers, and Mr Welsby, the Headmaster, yet I can only remember one or two of my High School teachers. The school had a very modern approach for its time. We were given responsibility, such as answering Mr Welsby's phone if it rang while we were passing his study and he wasn't in. The teachers didn't comment on the fact that I was left-handed and never forced me to change to my right, even when it caused some confusion during sewing lessons! I'm glad the school is still there, I would love to go inside and see if it still has the original layout - the classrooms laid out in a square around a quadrangle. But no more time to stop and stare, I still had quite a walk ahead of me.

Turning right at the bottom of St Johns Road, I could see changes in the streets of terraced housing that ran off Tarbock Road, with new houses replacing some, but not all, of the original terraces. These were the streets where many of my junior school friends lived. I carried on towards The Rooley, looking for the dance school, located in a large old house called The Brooklands, where I met first met Jim. Dance schools were very popular in the late 1950s, Billy Martin's was also well-known. I know a lot of married couples who met in dance schools in the '50s/early '60s. In Brooklands we had two dance instructors and about an hour's tuition - ballroom dancing - before enjoying the rest of the evening showing off our new steps till it was time for the last waltz, always the Dream Weavers singing 'It's Almost Tomorrow' .

I don't know why I was surprised to find that the old, rambling house is no longer there - after all it's almost 60 years since I last visited it. In its place is a cul-de-sac of smart, modern houses, but I was pleased to see that they've retained a link to the past.   

By now, I was weary and foot-sore and it was time to make my way back to Huyton Station. As I sat on the train home, my mind was a whirlwind of memories, emotions, and images of lost loved ones; parents, in-laws, Freda and John, our lovely next-door neighbours, Pat, my friend for 60 years - and all the people who passed in and out of my life through those years.

Most of the landscape of my early life has changed beyond recognition, but the memories remain vivid. It is unlikely I will re-visit these places but I don't regret taking a nostalgic stroll through my past.

[I am indebted to various websites for some of these photographs, if anyone needs a personal accreditation, please contact me.]

Sunday, 9 October 2016

Nostalgia - Part 1

Remembering my childhood haunts

I was a baby when my family moved from the centre of Liverpool to the comparative safety of Huyton Quarry at the outbreak of World War II, after a short period of evacuation when the family had been split up. Huyton Quarry was a village, not far from Liverpool geographically, but a world away in its pace of life. My childhood memories are mostly centred around Huyton Quarry, and Huyton Village, a ten minute walk away. All our day to day requirements were met virtually on our doorstep; a butcher, a grocery store, a greengrocer - and a newsagents and sweet shop next door to each other, businesses carried out in the front rooms of terraced houses by brothers called Echo Jones and Toffee Jones, for obvious reasons. Oh, the excitement of entering the small, dark sweet shop clutching my ration book, waiting as a coupon was stamped before my twopence was handed over in exchange for a paper cone of sweets. Back in those days, a child could also go into a newsagents and ask for 'Ten Woodbines for my dad, please' - cigarettes were mostly kept 'under the counter' and reserved for regular customers.

There was another parade of shops on the other side of the railway line that bisected the village - these  shops were larger and purpose-built; one was a hardware store where I would pay in regular small sums of threepence or sixpence from my pocket money to save up for Christmas presents for my mum and dad. I still have the Dick Turpin toby jugs I bought almost 70 years ago!

My favourite place, apart from my Junior School, Sylvester County Primary, was Huyton Library. As soon as I was old enough to have my own ticket, I would walk the mile or so with my best friend, Pat. Rain didn't deter us, the children's section was equipped with large, green leather armchairs where you could lose yourself in a book until it stopped. We were voracious readers and during school holidays must have visited the library most weekdays. One day, having finished our new books before lunch, we returned them in the afternoon, only to be told that we had to keep them at least 24 hours!

Very close to the library was the baby clinic where my mum bought the concentrated orange juice and cod-liver oil she hoped would keep me healthy. I loved my daily spoonful of cod-liver oil, and she also dosed me up with every other supplement available; malt-extract, Virol, Scott's Emulsion, and Parish's Food - which tasted of iron and left you with a purple tongue.

I remember Saturday matinees at The Mayfair cinema in Huyton,  boisterous lads whooping and hollering, as they poured out through the big iron doors of the side entrance, blinking in the bright daylight, still lost in that make-believe world of 'cowboys and indians' or Flash Gordon.

As I grew up, my horizons widened. I attended High School in Childwall and made friends who lived further afield. I took two buses to visit my dad's family in Bootle on Sundays, and eventually started work in a city centre office. In the late 1950s, I enjoyed lunch-time sessions The Cavern Club, this was pre-Beatles when The Cavern was a jazz club. Weekend evenings were spent at The Locarno, The Grafton,The Harlequin, and other dance halls, or as a regular at the many cinemas in and around the city, with the boyfriend I would eventually marry.

Once married, and when my new husband had completed his National Service in the Royal Navy, we moved about 20 miles out of Merseyside to another small town where we brought up our family and where, 54 years later, we still live. Although I visit Liverpool on a very regular basis, and frequent visits were made to Huyton Quarry and Huyton-with-Roby while our parents were alive, it's now many years since I've walked the streets of my childhood. I knew that The Mayfair closed in 1960; I'd seen Huyton change while my parents were still alive. But as my train into Liverpool passes through Huyton Station now, I can see that even bigger changes have taken place and being curious as to just what remains of the scenes of my childhood I felt it was time to take a walk through my past. Would anything remain of my childhood haunts?

[I am indebted to various sites on the internet for some of these photographs, if anyone needs a personal accreditation, please contact me.]

Sunday, 31 July 2016

A Quiet Hero

A Tribute to One of Liverpool's 'Quiet Heroes'
 - John H (March 1924 - May 2016)

As the 100th anniversary of the Battle of the Somme is being commemorated this summer, it seems an appropriate time to offer a personal tribute to a man who played his part in the D-Day Landings in World War II, just 28 years after "the war to end all wars".

John was born in Liverpool in 1924 and there were early signs that he would grow up with a sense of duty and responsibility. Ronnie, his younger brother, remembers John as his 'protector', spending time reading to him when he was very young, to the extent that Ronnie was already a proficient reader by the time he started school. Ronnie also relates an incident when John was was appearing in a school musical, with Ronnie and their mum in the audience.

'...The floor suddenly collapsed and crashed down sideways into the basement below, plunging everything and everyone into darkness. Mum and I were trapped in the rubble and smashed furniture and unable to move. After a time we heard noises above and a hole appeared...there was John, bloodied and battered, smiling down at us and leading our rescue. He was later taken to hospital for treatment where he met the Lord Mayor of Liverpool. He congratulated him on his bravery and gave him half-a-crown. John of course shared the money with Mum and me - he was nine years old.'

As a teenager - although that description hadn't yet been coined - John excelled at cricket, football and amateur boxing, but it was not until the 1960s that Ronnie introduced him to the game of golf, which became a passion which lasted for the rest of John's life.

In 1941, John, unwilling to wait for conscription into the army, lied about his age and volunteered for the Royal Navy. 

John served in Malta, Palestine, France and the Atlantic and before his demob in 1946 he was on leave in Weymouth when he met Freda - a Liverpool girl on holiday with a friend.

The romance flourished and the couple were married in Woolton, Liverpool, in March, 1948. Freda had saved enough clothing coupons to buy a white wedding dress and, like many post-war brides, her honeymoon nightdress was made from parachute silk!

I first met John and Freda when I was a young schoolgirl and they moved into the house next door with their baby daughter. It was around 1950 - I can't be sure of the exact date because from the moment they set up home in our terraced block I felt as if they'd always lived there. They were a lovely young couple with an adorable baby - and a second soon arrived to complete the family - what more could an impressionable 11-year-old wish for. I always felt welcome in their house, Freda was an excellent home-maker and I picked up many hints from her as a I grew up, which I put into practice when I was running my own home and bringing up my children. Of course, as a child, I didn't think that behind the scenes life probably wasn't easy for the young couple in those early post-war years, there must have been times when money was tight; yet both little girls were always beautifully dressed thanks to Freda's dressmaking skills.

When I married in 1960, Linda and June, were my bridesmaids, and although the family eventually moved back to Woolton, and we moved out of the city, we kept in touch as my own family grew and the two little girls I'd babysat also grew up and married. Family and friends were devastated when Freda died at the age of fifty-two after a short illness. After some years, John moved out of Liverpool and made his home in Suffolk after meeting and beginning a new life with Marion, but we still kept in touch. The last occasion we met was at Linda's 60th birthday party, John having managed the long drive north despite being in his 80s. And as I'd remembered throughout all the years I knew him, he was still smiling, still cheerful.

It was 2004, when Linda and June organised a visit to Omaha to celebrate John's 80th birthday, that they first learned of his experiences on D-Day. He told them that during all the horrors of that day, he had focused on a church steeple above the beach. They found the church, which had been bombed by the allies at 11am as German snipers were using it, and as they sat together, John broke down and at last spoke to his daughters about what had happened. When they returned home after the trip, John put pen to paper to record his thoughts and experiences and I can do no better than quote his own words.

'We leave home for Portsmouth on Tuesday, 13 July, and stay the night at the Holiday Inn... We were awake early to board the ferry for Caen...arriving mid-morning, then made our way to Bayeux which would be our home for the next few days. After unpacking and freshening up we would start our journey to Omaha beach.
   ...I didn't know what to expect when I arrived, after all it was sixty years since I was last there, and under very different circumstances. I think I felt more nervous than I did all that time ago. Arriving at the beach the memories came flooding back, not very pleasant ones. How would I know where we landed? I knew I could see a church spire in the distance, and if I could see it again I would know exactly where it was we landed.
On June 5 1944, we set off for an unknown destination. We all had an idea it was something big, we knew it would be France because we'd had the Americans aboard for over a week and they had all been issued with French francs. We sailed through the night and anchored off the French coast till daybreak, having no idea of where we were. We set off towards the beaches just after 6am, everything seemed so quiet till we were due to let the ramps down to let the tanks off, then all hell let loose. There were small craft alongside us with about forty men aboard, just disappearing, bodies all over the place. The Americans were dropping like flies all over the beach. The tanks disembarked onto the beach and I thought at the time, at least they had some protection, the poor infantry didn't have much. I will never forget that day as long as I live. I thanked God for his protection that day, and have thanked him every night of my life since.'

[Sixty years later] We walked down onto the beach and the memories kept flooding back. The first thing I looked for was the church steeple; stepping back along the beach I got a glimpse of it and knew then that I was in the right place. Walking back up from the beach, seeing all the old gun emplacements - it was a wonder anyone came out alive. The French government have given all the land above the beaches to the Americans, so that nothing will ever be built on it. It seemed so peaceful and hallowed compared with 60 years ago. I was one of the few lucky ones.
   A short drive from Omaha, we arrived at the village of St Laurent and found the church, Notre Dame. It had been badly damaged during the war but has been fully restored since. I went into the church with my family to pay my respects to all the men who lost their lives all that time ago. Seeing the church 60 years ago, little did I think at the time that one day I would be praying in it and I am grateful to my family for making it possible - a very emotional experience.'

John goes on to describe the next part of his journey, his visit to the American Cemetery; to Arromances, the scene of the English and Canadian landings, and its museum, where the Vets were made welcome and thanked for their part in the liberation. He mentions seeing the D-Day films at Cinema 360, which he describes as giving a good insight into what took place. He also visited the LST and Landing Craft Association Memorial in the town centre and writes of his sadness and the emotional impact of the day. His account continues:

'Friday 16th, this is the big day. We are due at the Abbaye aux Dames in Caen at 11am for the presentation of a chest badge. It is being presented by the French Government to all the Veterans, in order to pay tribute to those who have come to Normandy to remember their fallen comrades. We arrived at the Abbey in good time and were made most welcome, there were supposed to be eight of us, but for some unknown reason only two of us turned up - nevertheless, they decided to carry on with the ceremonies. We were introduced to the Mayor, who was going to conduct the ceremony, his speech was in French but translated into English by a young lady. After the very emotional speech our chest badges were brought in on red velvet cushions and presented to us by the Mayor, I felt really proud and it was nice to have my family present at the ceremony. Food and drinks were laid on for us after the ceremony and we were given a book and a poster to remind us of our visit. These memories will be with me for ever...

   Leaving Caen, we headed for Le Havre, another place which held special memories for me. It was quite a time after the main landings that we had to call at Le Havre, to pick up a German E-boat and take it back to England. Arriving at port in darkness and thick fog, we were unable to find the harbour entrance, the skipper decided to drop anchor for the night and wait till morning. At daybreak we could see the harbour entrance but before we had the chance to do anything a voice over the loud hailer informed us that we were anchored in a minefield! It took quite a while to haul up the anchor, couldn't rush things, everyone had their fingers crossed, saying a few prayers I expect, and hoping we didn't hear a loud bang. It would probably have been the last bang we would have heard in our lives. Another lucky escape.
   We ended up in harbour for six weeks, our engines had broken down. Lost touch with the outside world and found out later that we had been posted missing. It must have been a very worrying time for my family. We were unaware what was happening at the time. We had no food supplies for all that time, had to live on emergency supplies that we had on board, consisting of corned beef and hard tack (dog biscuits). Thanks to the American army they gave us some of their grub to help us along.'

John ended his re-visit to Normandy on Saturday, 17th July, 2004 and completes his account with these moving words:
'I just hope the younger generation will not forget us. We Vets are not heroes, we don't pretend to be, we just did what we had to do. We were all youngsters ourselves at the time and we all thought we were fighting for freedom for everybody. Please protect that freedom, nobody with any sense wants wars. Don't let our efforts be wasted.'

In 2015, a year after the 70th anniversary of D-Day, John's daughter, Linda, read an article in a newspaper stating that as a gesture of appreciation, the French Government were awarding the Légion d'Honneur, France's highest honour, to all surviving Veterans. She subsequently applied to the MOD, filling in an on-line form giving John's Naval ID - Able-Bodied Seaman - and explaining his role on D-Day:
   'On board LCT 798 serving as AA3 Gunner for initial landing at 6am on Omaha Beach, 4th June, 1944, taking Americans in to land on beach. Also subsequent landings made on the same day.'

By now, John health's was deteriorating; Linda knew that time was running out as the medal could only be awarded to surviving Veterans, not their families, but she carried on her own battle to win this well-deserved tribute for her father. The look of pride in John's eyes when he learned that he was to be a recipient of the honour was reward enough for her determination.

John passed away in May, 2016, surrounded by his loved ones. Sadly, his brother, Ronnie, was unable to make the journey from New Zealand, his home for many years, but he sent a moving tribute to his much-loved older brother which was read out at John's funeral. It ended with the words:

'The sailor has gone out with the tide.'

 RIP John; a 'quiet hero', you were the perfect role model for your four grandsons and great-grandson and will be sorely missed by all who knew you.

Tuesday, 14 June 2016

To Dye - or Not to Dye - That is the Question  (Apologies to The Bard!)

When I was a child I didn't know any women of the older generation who dyed their hair; you became middle-aged, you went grey, it was as simple as that. By the time I was a teenager in the '50s, young women were beginning to experiment with colour just for fun. I had friends who went 'plum' coloured and others who went blonde, but it was usually only a temporary phase. It was easier if you had 'mousy' hair - or to be kinder, hair of an indeterminate colour! On my father's side of the family there were women - and men - with glorious auburn hair which became in later life what was described as 'pepper and salt'. However, my mother was Spanish and I inherited her very dark hair - and I think the darker your hair colour, the earlier it will turn grey.

As a young child, my hair was very straight and was usually cut in a simple 'basin' cut by my mum. Oh how I envied my best friend, who had blonde, naturally curly hair!

As a teenager, I discovered the delights of home-perms.

My hair grew very quickly and as a young married woman in the '60s, I regularly switched between long and short styles - never worrying about its colour.

By the time I was expecting my first child, in 1966, my hair was long again.

The years pass, you're busy raising your family, you take the colour of your hair for granted, the image you see in the mirror, when you have time to look, is still familiar. Until change creeps up on you, one silver thread at a time. My first one appeared when I was in my thirties, a mother of three, blissfully unaware of the momentous change that was taking place - until a 'friend', standing behind me, gleefully pulled out a long silver hair from the back of my head! Even then, I didn't worry too much about it, I was in my fifties before the process began speeding up. Those were the days when you took holiday snaps on a roll of film that took a week or so to be developed before you could see the end result. And suddenly you don't recognise the woman smiling out at you - 'But I'm going grey', you wail.

Decision time! A point that most women will reach at some time in their lives. Will we embrace the change in our natural hair colour, from brunette, auburn, or blonde to silver, or will we step on that treadmill of home-colouring or expensive visits to salons? And if we go down the colouring route how many years will it be before we say, 'enough is enough'?

Is it easier for blondes? Probably; I imagine silver can become ash-blonde quite easily, and look very attractive. But if you've always had very dark hair, it's more difficult. Black was out of the question, it just didn't look natural, so I began with 'mid-brown', going slightly lighter as my hair became more and more grey. But I never really liked it. I don't enjoy going to the hairdressers, I get my hair trimmed at home, so colouring was a DIY job. I'm sure home products are improving all the time, but I always dreaded it, the preparation - covering the bathroom floor with old towels (once I still managed to 'drip' onto a new stair-carpet) - and the timing, if I was going somewhere special in a couple of weeks time would my colour last, or would I end up with the dreaded 'badger streak'?

When I reached seventy, I was ready to give in, but my husband kept persuading me otherwise - even though his own hair was completely grey. Funny how on men it's considered distinguished - the 'silver fox' look - while on woman it's said to be 'ageing'! I persevered for another couple of years but I knew there was no way I was going to keep on past the age of seventy-five. Once the decision was made, it wasn't an easy transition. I had to watch the silver creep, inch by inch, from the crown to the ends - not a pretty sight! One word of advice - if you decide to take the plunge, do it in the winter when you can always wear a hat outdoors.

Once the last half-inch of coloured hair was snipped away (a 'semi-permanent' colour lasts much, much longer than the six weeks it's supposed to) the sense of relief and achievement was wonderful. There have been annoying moments, but fortunately I've been able to see the funny side of them. Booking into a hotel with my husband, we were asked if we would like an 'accessible' ground-floor room!
   'No, we'd like one on the top floor please.'
   'Well, we have got one on the top floor but I'm afraid there's no lift.'
   'That's not a problem.' The hotel was only two storeys high!
   'But the room is at the far end of the corridor.'
   'Yes, yes, that's fine.' 
We're now regulars at this particular hotel - it's where we stay when we're visiting family - so now they just smile and say, 'Room 208, as usual?' I also appreciate it when young people give up their seat for you on buses and trains, I certainly don't resent the gesture.

Of course, I miss the thick, heavy hair of my youth, the gloss, and the way the sunlight would highlight glints of chestnut; but I know it wouldn't suit the face I inhabit now, Mother Nature's taste is excellent when it comes to colour schemes - and all the family love my 'new look'. Although I'm a little sad when my grandchildren browse the old photograph albums and say, 'Gosh, Nanny, is that really you!'

According to Shakespeare, I have now reached the seventh age of  [wo]man - but although my 'crowning glory' is silver, and no longer glorious, I'm not yet 'sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything' - so, sorry, William, I'm not quite finished yet!

Thanks to my good friend, children's author Annie Holland, for my latest photograph. Annie's delightful 'Stella the Stork' tales are available from