A celebration of friendship

Happy 60th Birthday Jane

He who would valiant be ‘gainst all disaster
Let him in constancy follow the Master
There’s no discouragement shall make him once relent
His first avowed intent to be a pilgrim”

It was September 1971 when two skinny, nervous 11-year-olds ventured into the dark and dingy assembly hall at Heath Park Secondary School for Girls in Romford, Essex.

This is a tale to mark 50 years of friendship – from schoolgirls to sexagenarians – My friend Jane and me. There are many words to celebrate a special and unique relationship – borne out of growing up with someone, through every milestone, the good times, the bad, the cliched trials and tribulations of life. To quote Michel Eyquem De Montaigne (1533-1592) from ‘Of Friendship’ a text that dates back almost 500 years:

(Friendship is) a general and universal fire, but temperate and equal, a constant established heat, all gentle and smooth, without poignancy or roughness’

And there is certainty in that sentiment – to use another well-worn phrase ours is a road well-travelled, the  X Factor ‘journey’ in every sense of the meaning.

hujkhjl

Photo booth at Woolworths, Romford, April 1976

We’ve had joy we had fun we had seasons in the sun, we sang what becomes of the broken hearted. There were Moments and Whatnauts (girls, love the things they know..) and Ms Grace (all satin, perfume and lace). We shared top marks in English – Jane one summer term, me the next. We were together in France and Italy on school trips, there were youth club discos, we Coo Coo Ca Choo’d with Alvin Stardust in 1974, we went ice skating and swimming together with our friends and had regular dates in the photo booth at Woolworths (the selfie of yesteryear).

We sang Bohemian Rhapsody with classmates who had surreptitiously smuggled a tape cassette recorder into school – just as Queen had hit the number 1 spot in 1975 and long before it was fashionable for this iconic track to be sung – anthem style – at every major family occasion since. We travelled on the top deck of the 174 to Dagenham lido during the endless hot summer of 1976. We wore skimpy t shirts, voluminous trousers and head scarves (a mystifying fashion ‘must’ of the day) chorusing the Isley Brothers and the very appropriate Summer Breeze. While classmate Sally Mansfield found herself in trouble for her over-enthusiastic rendition of R.J Stone’s We Do It – just as Mrs Flynn opened the door for our French lesson in 5A2. There were parties galore, heady trance-like swirling in 1977 when Donna Summer was wailing I feel love (ooh I got you, I got you, I got yoouuuu). And then..oh yes from cheesy puffs and Bovril at Mawney Road swimming baths the inevitable graduation to alcohol: Cinzano, Cointreau (yes it was fashionable in the ‘70’s, along with scampi-in-a-basket and Black Forest Gateau at the Berni Inn).  At home the hostess trolley was a must in every dining room, and we were regularly invited to cheese fondue parties. Imagine how gloriously entertaining our evenings were. We thought Some Mothers to ‘ave ‘em, It’s a Knockout and Pans People were amazing! We quaffed the staple wine of the era when Black Tower was just a little bit pricey for a teen schoolgirl, the tolerable – but only just – Lutomer Reisling.

The sound of There’s a Ghost in my House still plays loud in my ears as I recall a hot summer evening in 1975 at a clubhouse disco – was it Arnaud Lodge – an old scout hut behind The Drill pub in Romford?  I do remember a lad called Eric trying to kiss me and whenever I hear the lyrics: time can’t seem to erase the vision of your smiling face….I see Eric again: in a capped sleeve t-shirt and Oxford Bags. He had an eager gaze…did he parachute out of town wearing those trousers – who knows…?

There were the inevitable boyfriends and broken hearts. From white socks and ponytails, into corduroy, chiffon and capes. As the Cat Crept in and then Crept out again our glam rock days were consumed with relish: we clonked our dance moves in platform boots, bedecked ourselves in love beads and were doused in either patchouli or taboo perfume. We bought Jackie religiously and the Cathy & Claire problem page was lunchtime classroom reading every week.  There have been weddings, births and deaths…we have laughed a lot, cried at times and consumed more than a jeroboam of wine on very many occasions.

As the Italians might say amici e vini sono meglio vecchi.

The month we started at secondary school I’m Still Waiting’ Diana Ross’s woeful lament was number 1 in the charts, the average wage was around £30 a week, a Mars Bar was 6p and a packet of 20 Players No 6 cigarettes was 24p. In 1971 the average house price was £5,632 – compare that to the cost of a similar house in 2013, calculated at £245,319 – over 43 times of that in the early ‘70’s*

* Shelter research published in the Telegraph in 2013 reported that if food costs had risen in line with house prices over the same period (40 years), a roast chicken would cost £51 and a carton of milk £10. This is the shocking reality for today’s younger generation in their quest to acquire affordable housing.

The highlight of an otherwise relatively quiet year both on the national and international stage, was the introduction of decimalisation in the UK in February 1971 (having a sixpence to buy sweets was never quite the same when the humble ‘tanner’ became 2.5 pence. Black jacks, fruit salads and flying saucers leapt up to a penny each – in the metric sense we were robbed overnight).

I don’t recall Jane Steele from my first day, probably because we would have been streamed into alphabetical halves for our first term at the new school. From the end of year 1 however, we were in the same class – from the age of 11 until we were 17. Over the next 6 years we shared a loathing for Hereford Pie (an inedible school dinner that we were forced to eat at Heath Park), a mutual idolatry for David Cassidy, we wore platform shoes, billowing flared trousers, polka dot-wide collared shirts, had flicked hair (we tried so hard to be Farrah Fawcett) and bright blue eye shadow – we embraced all that marked the ‘70’s – the decade that taste forgot – as one commentator observed.

We morphed from spindly girls into tempestuous teenagers and then onto become young women, full of hope and expectation for a future of love, life and memorable adventure.

k.lhjklh

duyrtu

Jane (top bunk) of the couchette on the train to Italy (school trip 1976) and a climb up Vesuvius on the same trip (very poor quality 70’s photos!)

On our very first day we were given a hymn book and marched into assembly – commonplace of schooldays then – the daily ritual of religious teaching, praising the Lord, prayers to absolve our failings, words to aspire us to be better godly beings. It was Oh Jesus I have promised and Our father who art in heaven in all its questionable glory.

Our knees would have been trembling – the tyrannical headmistress Miss Samuel will have shrilled her command to the new intake for the school year. She was a terrifying woman who ruled by fear and an ugly sneering humiliation was her schtick. It is almost half a century since, but I can still remember the vituperative woman vividly. I never met any girl from the school who had a smidgen of respect for this thoroughly unpleasant character, never a smile nor an encouraging word ventured from her thin, tight-lipped mouth. She was not averse to using the cane either, the bygone days of sadistic schooling, where ritual bullying was mostly meted out by teachers – because back then – and it’s not so long ago – they could get away with it.

In our first assembly we were instructed to learn the words of John Bunyan’s To be a Pilgrim. It was the school hymn and woe betide if any girl could not recite the words off by heart. I can still feel the shivery chill on my spine as Miss Samuel would scan the hall, elevated from the stage, her gestapo-style gaze fixing on some poor meek knock-kneed girl mumbling incoherently (the first verse was always sung with gusto, it was the second and third verses that commanded the use of lip synching, way, way before it was the norm on Top of the Pops). She clearly enjoyed plucking a girl from the assembled hall, hoisting them to the front to administer a conduct detention – for wicked and wanton disregard of her ‘rule’ – to be able to sing to be a pilgrim without reference to the hymn book.

Throughout our school days we never quite lost the tag of being ‘secondary’ girls. We had failed the 11-plus and were therefore relegated – not just into the first or even second division – but regarded hardly any greater than that of Isthmian league status. Such was the disparity of those who passed the test and moved from primary to grammar school. As a result, I have an engrained hatred of a tiered education system. The judgement of a child by virtue of an examination at the age of 11 years old which determines whether you are going to receive an academic education at grammar school – ‘you have passed’ or that which – up until the early ‘70’s state system – ‘you have failed’.

As Miss Samuel told our parents at the introductory open day, a girl who failed the 11 plus could still enjoy the heady heights of a future career as a secretary or even a nurse ‘if exceptional’. Our timetable included sewing pinafores in needlework or baking cheese and potato pie and expected to partake enthusiastically in marmalade week in October. This was all we could aspire to seemingly in this archaic education system.  No Latin verbs for the simple girls and certainly never a chance to study physics or chemistry. Our already established diminished intellect was to be patronisingly pitied for the next 6 years of our lives.

There is no shame in being a secretary or a nurse – they are both skilled professions. ‘You’ll never go wrong if you can do shorthand’ my Dad always said, but it was the self-imposed limits that the system dictated to secondary school students at the time that I believe is completely unacceptable. Anyone who knows me will have worked out that domestic roles are an absolute anathema and as far from my skill set that could ever be. It was only by the time I reached the 4th year that I had mastered the embroidered initials onto my gingham cookery apron – hardly an onerous task but my sewing skills are despairingly poor – to this day my hopeless attempts to stitch a hem are laughable.

Jane and I were good at English and vied for top spot in the end of term exams and we had usually hit the 70-80 mark. We did not consciously pit against each other. Being top of the class was never a competition – that has been the hallmark of our friendship, Jane has never pitched herself above anything or anybody. I am competitive but not on a personal level and we have enjoyed what I regard as a healthy respect and genuine delight in its each other’s good news and successes over the last 48 years.

We are very different of course, so often the alchemy of a harmonious long-term relationship. Jane is unfailingly measured and kind. She is reliable, loyal and extremely generous. I am certainly more impulsive and in my younger days somewhat raucous and daring – there have been times – I concede – daring to the point of reckless…I have curbed this tendency as age (and the curse of MS over the last 10 years) has slowed me down considerably.

In 1973 our school adopted the comprehensive system and we became the Frances Bardsley School for Girls. We moved to the old grammar school site at Romford County High but we were still segregated and remained so until we completed our CSE’s in 1976. There was an overwhelming reluctance to embrace comprehensive schooling in the early 70’s – certainly from my experience. Other areas of the country were more receptive and the genuine commitment to offer equal opportunity to all children was certainly apparent in other schools.  Romford did not embrace change comfortably. In retrospect the teaching staff across the two sites of the school – the lower and upper building remained as entrenched as either teachers of ‘grammar’ education or of the lesser capable ‘secondary’ girls.

We had one teacher (everyone remembers that one teacher don’t they?) who fought our case to take O levels. She was newly qualified, fresh and enthusiastic and more importantly not a dinosaur of the old system, so battled to enlist six girls from our class (Jane and I included) to take O levels in the subjects she taught – English and history – which quickly became our favourite lessons, because she was so animated and committed to our cause. She championed the top 6 girls in her  subjects to take the higher exam (we sat CSE’s too) and once she had the agreement from her superiors she ensured we would pass by keeping us in at lunchtime and after school for additional tutoring (to cover the differing syllabus of the two examinations). We are forever in debt to Mrs Marlowe, she was the one teacher who passionately believed we could hold our own with the grammar school students. And we did. She was vindicated when we all passed our O levels in English and history.

My daughter once asked Jane ‘what was my Mum like when you were at school?’ and typically diplomatic Jane replied: ‘she was fun Lizzy!’ She had adeptly skirted the real version -Jane doesn’t have a bad bone in her body – so recollections of me being disruptive, always having a lot to say for myself, and being sent out of the classroom for being cheeky did not feature in the edited highlights. I must have been a nightmare.

A form teacher ( a particularly caustic woman) remarked in my final report ‘Alyson should learn to use her influence in the class to better use…’ portentous words perhaps for one who has spent her working life championing trade union membership!

 

ftyutuit67

Outside our classroom (end of exams 1976) Jane and I are sitting at the front; Alexis is standing (far right) at the back

rtuiruiyi

At Hackney speedway (1977) with Kay Wilson (‘Spiff’), Janice Bentley and Sally Mansfield

uiopuiopui

Outside Barking College waiting for the coach to take us to Streatham ice rink (1977) from left to right Carol Webb, Karen Crowe, Jane, Kay (Spiff) and Janice

 

tuiyuiyuity

December 1976 snow! (last day of term) Jane (centre), Julia Bull, Carol, Siobhan Taylor and Spiff

Jane and I left school in 1977. We abandoned our A level studies after a year (we must have decided there was only so much of Mrs Nineham’s bored monotone voice attempting to enthuse that Vanity Fair was classic reading until we were at the point of comatose. I imagine this finally helped us make up our minds). Jane went to Barking College and I started work at the Romford local VAT office. A little over a year later we were meeting up once again at Gidea Park station – both of us had secretarial jobs in the City, so we travelled to Liverpool Street every morning and then onto the underground – the Circle line. I was working at United Trade Press in Farringdon (a stone’s throw from The Guardian’s offices at that time) and she at The Barbican – one stop on.

tyee

A night out (1979)

Both of us were engaged too. My relationship foundered in the winter of 1979 – just as Hit Me With Your Rhythm Stick got to No 1 in the charts. Oh how sweet the irony!  I was about to change the course of my life completely when I landed a job as a trainee reporter at the local newspaper, the Barking & Dagenham Post in May 1980. Jane meanwhile was about to embark on married life in July of that year.

Cue Gary Robson. The only man for Jane. She knew when they met, she was 15 and him 17, that he was ‘the one’. All of us around this most enduring of relationships – about to celebrate a 40th anniversary next year – were on a rocky road of different relationships, some good but many more (in my case) infuriating and feckless, but Jane and Gary were always together and never deterred from being an equal partnership, committed to each other from day 1. That’s not to say they didn’t have the normal ups and downs in the early stages, but there was never ever any doubt that these two would be married and together, forever. It seems so unfashionable as so many of us have moved from one relationship to the next, as is society’s ‘norm’ today. Jane and Gary are as bound together and as synonymous as other inseparable partnerships; they are Morecambe & Wise, Torvill & Dean, Ant & Dec and fish and chips – all rolled into one…as a couple they are a tour de force.

ererereertertertertert

With my brother Russell (1980) and at my flat in Romford with Reilly (1982)

uuu

Wedding day (July 1980)

Gary has been in our lives for so long he is as much part of the friendship I have with Jane and I consider myself blessed that our families have become as bonded over the years. He is my third brother – such is the closeness of our combined families. We worked out recently that Jane and Gary’s ever-presence at major occasions includes my 16th, 21st, 40th, 50th birthday parties, as well as a host of other do’s, family and friends’ weddings – even the one I didn’t have in 1991!

Mr Dad, brothers and I would see Gary – a lifelong West Ham United fan – at the old Boleyn ground at Upton Park (sadly missed) back in the ‘80’s. His season ticket seat was just behind the 3 we had on the east stand. Our families have shared the (few) joys and (many) heartaches of supporting the boys in claret and blue. Jane – Liverpool born – does not share our passion for the Hammers but I think fair to say has indulged Gary’s love for sport, football, darts and golf over the years. She is a bit of a culture vulture herself and is often at the theatre or shows in the West End, she has certainly not been averse to a few weekends away either, and as friend Linda says ‘happy memories of Brussels, Dieppe and Ostend. A bit of shopping and a little liquid refreshment’!

They have two lovely sons, Andrew and Michael and now daughters-in-law Nikki and Hannah and I regard our families almost intertwined – having known Jane’s sister ‘our’ Janet and brother ‘our’ Robert, Mum Connie and her late Dad Ken for as long as our friendship has endured. On family occasions – we have been able to share so much over the years. It is a special privilege without any doubt, this includes Gary’s family too, Gloria, Robbie, Auntie Debbie and Johnny.

rweterte

Hannah & Michael’s wedding day (April 2017)

During the first stages of married life Jane and Gary lived in a flat above the shop Gary owned in Carlton Road, Romford. It is a wonder how the place upstairs survived the ‘gatherings’ – there was one occasion when the floors were seriously bouncing – such was the bonhomie in the room! A few alcoholic beverages had been supped at one Christmas party, the night I slid down the wall (it might have been over enthusiastic singing of Slade’s Merry Christmas Everyone). I am occasionally reminded (I can’t remember) that the seasonal cards pinned onto the wall cascaded down onto me – to the amusement of all in attendance.

Jane once decamped from the flat in the middle of the night and ran up the road, wearing just a nightie and wrapped in a duvet, in a state of sheer panic back to her parent’s house after Gary opened the wardrobe door to the sound of scratching – only for a rat to emerge. Gary later said he had never seen her move as fast (and such was her desire to escape as quickly as possible she hadn’t bothered about what her hair looked like as she bolted out of the flat at lightning speed!)

When I moved to Wolverhampton in 1983 and long before mobile phones, emails and text messaging we relied on good old-fashioned letter writing to stay in touch (even a phone call from the landline was a rarity – we just couldn’t afford such luxury). The contents of my painstaking tales of life away from home were a source of great entertainment – especially for Gary – who wouldn’t wait for Jane to return home to open my letters. Jane bemoaned the fact that he would quite often say ‘oh wait until you read Alyson’s letter Jane – honestly how does she get into such scrapes’!

Admittedly there were probably many stories as the Kinks might’ve observed in their 1966 song Lazy Sunny Afternoon: telling tales of drunkenness and cruelty and I do recall once relaying an anecdote of splitting from a boyfriend and then him turning up at the pub where I was mid-date with another man. Gary has never forgotten my description of the event: the door of the saloon bar swung open, the hubbub from the locals went suddenly quiet, they were supping their beers in nervous anticipation….it was just like a scene from Gunfight at the OK Corral…

Or words along those lines…

Far be it that I was ever a tad over-dramatic!

Jane meanwhile had moved to the Halifax and then onto the Portman Building Society and carved out a successful career before taking time out to have the boys. Her colleagues Maggie and Linda talk fondly of good times and ‘the giggles’, Jane getting caught in a downpour, her hair ‘ruined’. Anyone who knows her will laugh: as long as I can remember Jane has had a tortuous relationship with her hair. It is not unusual to hear ‘oh I just couldn’t get my hair to go right this morning’ – whether it’s for a trip to Sainsbury’s, tea at The Ritz or a wedding reception – she is a slave to her Barnett – we all say ‘oh Jane it’s fine!’ every time – you could set your clock by the inevitable mention of the ‘nightmare with my hair’ – start up to every conversation.

Another favourite opening line has always been ‘I’m on a diet. I’ve got to fit into my dress for…..’ (add forthcoming occasion…) This has been a staple over the years – it started at school where she would also remind us on numerous occasions that by virtue of her birth in November 1959 she would be ‘almost 18’ by the time we left school. She said this in 1972, 1973 and 1974 as I recall.

As we were both busy rearing children (her in the later ‘80’s, me in the early 90’s) we were not as in regular touch as we had been in the early days – and again now – but we maintained contact nevertheless, I think it fair to say we did not have the time (or the money) to spend time away with our younger children.

There have been sad times too. In February 2010, our schoolfriend and fellow classmate Alexis died, following a long battle with breast cancer. Jane had grown up with Alexis, even further back than our meeting for the first time, so her passing was a profound loss – at just 50 years old it was suddenly a reality jolt, to lose a friend so young. All those shared memories. Jane still misses her enormously. We are very fortunate to continue the closeness with Alexis’ family, James her widower, and children Madelaine and Alisdair. This has been important to us all.

rrtyrtyrty

With Alexis at Gary’s 50th birthday party (July 2008)

ertertert

Together at the celebration of my Dad’s life event in Poole, Dorset (Nov 2017)

fghfg

A fit of giggles on our rmost recent weekend together (Shrewsbury August 2019)

As Jane celebrates her 60th birthday this week I am finding it hard to imagine us all those years ago. Young girls embarking on a big adventure.

Now we’re almost at our half century – a rewarding and abiding relationship that has gone the distance for almost 50 years. It has been a joy, and a great privilege to have had this special woman as a friend for so, so long…

Jane, I shall toast you, and us, raise a glass to our longtime friendship on Wednesday 20 th November. After all these years I can happily say  ‘yay you are 60 before me!’ (as a throwback to her constant reminder of how much older she was than all of us 1960-born girls during our school days). You might just be able to hear me, from a distance, singing a line or two from your favourite song Jimmy Ruffin’s 1974 hit What becomes of the Broken Hearted.

Thank goodness it is not To be a Pilgrim – at least we know the words off-by-heart – to every verse. No need for the hymn book this time…

Beautiful and rich is an old friendship ,

Grateful to the touch as ancient ivory,

Smooth as aged wine,

Or sheen of tapestry

Where light has lingered,

Intimate and long.

(Eunice Tiejens 1884-1944) From ‘Old Friendships’

A mention to another former classmate Lorna Feeney (nee McLeish) who is a facebook friend and will remember many of the old stories from our school days…

One thought on “A celebration of friendship

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s