Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Two sisters in England

Pictures serve one purpose and text another. Since I took many pictures of my sister's children in that first, 1959, stay with them and more in 1960, I have selected a few from each set and posted a Picasa album, fully titled, of them:
Just where they lived takes a little explanation. A building surviving from Victorian stables was converted into a row of apartments. If you search among the old photos on line, search Cheveley Hall, you learn that the house itself was demolished, and the Stud moved, still near Cheveley, elsewhere. A quarter century later, with my niece (who had been born after 1965) and nephew Billy, in his turn Air Force and stationed in East Anglia, we went back and found the building now very fully renovated and no longer rented out cheaply. The present residents were happy to show us what it looked like, but the make-it-do arrangements of 1960 were gone, only the sturdy structure identifiable, and the small homes were very nice indeed. From the old photographs and from my limited memory, I think that the fa├žade of the stable block was behind the apartments, which latter opened onto the horses' access to their quarters. Not that in 1959-1960 you'd have guessed that you were living in stalls, but neither was it up to code, so to speak. My sister and Bill with their two boys (three boys by 1960) were the only Americans, and they got along very well.
Lorna enjoyed going into Newmarket twice a week, on market days, for fresh vegetables and meat; besides, in between, a grocery wagon, horse drawn, came to the Stables with a useful variety of products and fresh-baked bread and rolls. Bread was subsidized and not only good but extremely cheap. Milk, in British pints, was delivered, tuberculin tested, and almost free to families with young children (so was orange juice), whether they were British subjects or Americans. For anything typically American, there was the market on base, Mildenhall US and RAF air base, for which Lorna and Bill had scrip; this was supposed to prevent much shopping for English friends, and in our family it was effective, unless you counted popcorn. I remember 7 or 8 children young enough to play with Billy at the Stables, and they adored popped sweet corn, served hot with melted English butter on it. They were offered peanut butter sandwiches, too, but the sight and odor of peanut butter were downright offensive to them. Our boys, for their part, liked all the English food and learned not to call jam marmalade or vice versa. Also, not to call trousers 'pants'. We all loved fish and chips. As much as once weekly, Bill bought on his way home from the base, in greasy newspapers, great hunks of fish and potatoes, eaten doused with brown vinegar and black pepper, washed down with ginger beer. It is so good that I still can't believe it's unhealthy.
The tenants of the Stables were varied. The children included the little boy, Derek, about the same age as Lorna's Larry, and his baby sister; as I recall, his father was an intern physician. The girls, older than Billy, but happy to play with him, were utterly average English little girls. In the unit at the inner end of the enclosure, the two little boys were not very conversational, not very well dressed or cared for, and their parents corresponded perfectly to a stereotype of the British working class. Lorna's boys, I saw, corresponded to the little girls. As a Californian I had never looked at people in classes until then. At that date, my family was much better off (besides having the best of both worlds, English rural life with medical service, and the joint air force base), and Lorna especially liked Derek's mother who seemed also to be glad that Lorna was her neighbor. Even so, Derek would grow up in a professional family and mine, since I was not marrying into my education, raising academic, though red-brick academic, children, would not; none of Lorna's children completed a regular college education. As for the other little boys, I'm sure they never passed the Eleven-plus.
I enjoyed Newmarket as an English equivalent to the San Luis Obispo of my childhood; I replaced the pair of shoes I had lost in that suitcase at the Bletchley Junction in Newmarket. I saw, at a distance, a brand-new B-52, enormous, on the tarmac at Mildenhall AFB, a SAC base, and rejoiced in the Mildenhall Church, which has one of the angel roofs that are featured in "The Nine Tailors" by Dorothy Sayers (not forgetting that the great Mildenhall Treasure was found there). The following summer I got the whole family to a picnic at Ely, one of my most favorite English cathedrals. Lorna and Bill were stay-at-homes in England, just as they have been back home. But Lorna picked up her neighbors' habit of taking the children and herself out walking in the afternoon, even though coming home to supper rather than tea. I enjoyed those walks. That end of Cambridgeshire, bordering on Suffolk, is as flat as Louisiana, but it is quietly quite lovely; the light is beautiful. Cheveley Village has a perfectly decent flint church of its own, too, and a two-room, two grade (younger and older children) C of E school, which sent our Billy back home to Texas two levels above grade in reading—though Billy was and remained simply a normal-bright pupil. It had, and has, a combined general store and post office. I can hardly believe that by now it hasn't also a suburb instead of just the Council Houses ("My old man's a dustman...and he lives in a Council flat", a popular recording at the time) with some chain store to go with it. Speaking of popular music, the kind the BBC did not broadcast, Radio Luxembourg blasted out Lonnie Donegan's version of "The Battle of New Orleans" over and over that year.
The easiest way for me to remember which visit to my sister's was which (an entirely different part of life from traveling to cities with relevant museums or life at the American School in Athens) is that in 1960 it included Kenny, who was born in February. I went down Hermes Street in Athens and bought him a white knit suit to be christened in (it was at the Base chapel, interdenominational, on July 15). Lorna and I went into Newcastle and got plenty of wool and patterns to knit standard pullovers all round (the royal blue one I knit for myself is what I'm wearing in the picture holding the black cat in Berkeley that I posted above, early in September). Lorna knit all three, for Bill and the boys, in turquoise blue. Each month Kenny was taken into Cheveley to the Well Baby Clinic to be weighed and measured and generally examined. He was highly approved of (Lorna made beautiful babies, and Kenny as an infant was surely her masterpiece) and sent home with vitamins, as I recall, like all the other babies. Actually, between what the UK gave him and the PX at the Base, it wasn't surprising that he was such a bouncing boy. One thing, at that time, that American mothers did more than English ones was to start giving strained vegetables and meats earlier as well as cereal and milk and juice. I remember, too, a couple of afternoons when there was fierce thunder and lightning, and a girl riding home on a bicycle was struck and killed.
Of Lorna's boys, Larry was the least robust and outgoing. One afternoon, to cheer him up I took him out on a long walk by himself and took a series of photographs of him, just as the previous summer I had taken Billy alone on the train to Bury St. Edmunds, to the little zoo, to a tea shoppe in town, and back. I wouldn't have had the confidence to take Larry so far by myself, and he might have gotten too tired. But Billy loved meeting all the people on the train and in the shops, besides behaving himself perfectly.
The summer of 1960, as the year before, I made return day trips to London or Cambridge just to study; our English neighbors found commuting to London from East Anglia remarkable, and they loved the joke about Texas, in which a man says, why, in Texas where I come from, you can take a train in the morning in Texas and still be in Texas in the evening, and the Englishman (or New Englander, for that matter) says, sympathetically, with a sigh, yes, we have trains like that, too. One thing I came to love about all of Europe is that it is well settled and small!