Memories of the late 1960s – not fitting in

1968

The change from the relative simplicity of Infant School to the far more structured environment of Junior School was a shock to my system. For one, the building itself was far larger. The long, L shaped corridors, filled with more children that I’d ever imagined existed in the whole world, were daunting for a small girl of seven or eight. Something about the rows of doors made me feel like Alice in Wonderland and I half expected to come upon a white rabbit with a pocket watch or a glass table with a key. Unlike the little Infant School, this had two floors and three sets of stairs, one at each end and a giant staircase at the apex of the L, going up, then dividing into two directions. The classrooms were almost all upstairs, mine at the far end, nearest the back gates of the school.

Nothing at all was the same. The low tables pushed together into little islands I’d become accustomed to were replaced by rows of single wooden desks with hinged lids and inkwells. The friends I’d made so far were mostly in different classes and I found myself surrounded by unfamiliar faces. The teacher, Miss Please, had a name made for jokes but, under her short dark hair was a stern face. Wobetide anyone who accidentally said, ‘please Miss Please,’ or sniggered when someone else did. She barked orders and seemed to take an instant dislike to the round little girl with short, white blonde hair.

In those days a rap on the knuckles for inattention, being pulled from a chair by the pigtails or even a visit to the Headmaster for the cane were quite normal. At the hands of Miss Please I suffered all but the latter, mostly for talking when I should have been listening. No doubt I deserved it and it was no more than I’d have got at home for misbehaving.

Fitting into this new world was made more difficult by Mother, who, stuck somewhere in the 1940’s or 1950’s, insisted on dressing me just as she had dressed Alex almost two decades before. The other little girls ran around the playground in best friend pairs, holding hands, heads together giggling, in Mary Quant style mini skirts and long white socks, while I was dressed in voluminous pleats, well below the knee and my socks were grey to match the skirt. The mothers, waiting at the school gates wore short skirts too, some even wore kinky boots. They had sleek, Vidal Sassoon style hair, or long straight hair held back with stretchy Alice Bands. My giant of a mother, in her floral dresses, well below the knee and hair like the queen stood out.

At the beginning of the flower power era, while the Beatles were in India studying Transcendental Meditation with the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi and Peace and Love were seemingly breaking out everywhere, I was a bundle of newfound insecurities. Everything conspired to make me feel different and, for the first time, I realised I didn’t quite fit in. Now I see my quirkiness is a virtue and can celebrate being a little odd but then the plump girl in the strange clothes stuck out like a sore thumb amongst all the miniature versions of Twiggy. In truth, I was happier on my own reading a book, drawing or, like Mother, crocheting squares to make a multi coloured blanket but I desperately wanted to be like the other girls.

Change was everywhere. Our pounds, shillings and pence were going to be decimalised and new coins began to appear. The five and ten pence coins began life as new versions of the shilling and two shilling, or florin, coins. As the only coins I’d ever had were pennies, tuppenny bits, the occasional golden threepenny piece and, once in a while, a silver sixpence from the tooth fairy, it didn’t make much difference to me. In fact it seemed it would be much easier counting money up in tens than in twelves. The adults though were far more used to the old lsd. If a shilling, worth twelve old pennies, was only going to be worth five pence and a pound was only going to be worth a hundred pence instead of two hundred and forty, they grumbled, things were going to get dearer.

Another change happened right in our classroom. One morning Miss Please announced there was going to be a new boy in class. His name was Hardik and he had brown skin. We were warned most sternly that we shouldn’t mention his brown skin or make fun of him. Until that moment the thought had probably never occurred to any of us, it certainly hadn’t to me, although we’d never seen a child with brown skin before. Nothing was mentioned about where he came from or how he came to be in our little village, things that might have made him exotic, interesting and popular, and the warning mostly served to make us afraid to talk to him in case we might somehow do something wrong and get in trouble. If a little chubby girl with odd clothes and stupidly blonde hair felt out of place, goodness only knows how poor Hardik felt.

One day we were all ushered out into the playground for a school photograph. The whole school sat or stood, along with the teachers and even the headmaster, Mr Fry, while a man with a special camera took a panoramic photograph. We had been warned to sit very still and most of us did. The resulting photo came out in a long roll. Mother didn’t want a picture where I was just a small blonde dot with pigtails sitting cross legged in the front row so she didn’t buy one. My friend Jill was luckier and, thanks to her, I have a copy today, albeit in slices. Oddly, very few of the faces look familiar to me now and I can name just a handful.

In case you were wondering dering I’m fourth from the right in the front row

Of course the world wasn’t really all peace and love but the violence of the  Vietnam War, the shooting of Martin Luther King and Robert F Kennedy barely touched our quiet little village. What we did see came via the evening news and seemed nothing but grainy black and white film, much as the assassination of John F Kennedy had years before. With the exception of Jackie Kennedy becoming Jackie Onassis, the stories that caught my attention, were mostly closer to home. The Beatles new cartoon film, Yellow Submarine was something I longed to see, but with Alex married, trips to the cinema were a rarity and it would be years before I did. Their new record label, Apple, seemed exciting, although I could never have imagined what an influence that particular fruit would have on my later life. Smartphones, computers and iPads were beyond imagination back then when we didn’t even have a phone in our house.

Alex was having another baby, although I had no idea where it was coming from or how except that she would get it from the hospital at some unspecified point in the future. Before it came though, she moved from her little caravan home to a tall tower block on the other side of the city. She lived on the thirteenth floor but Dad hated lifts and insisted and climbing the stairs. It may not have been ideal for a growing family but it was considerably better than a caravan. There was underfloor heating and fitted carpets throuout. A small hallway led down a handful of stairs into a long living room with a narrow kitchen to one side. Oddly, at least to me, the bedrooms and bathroom were downstairs.

Opposite the bedroom door was a fire escape door, leading, I think, through the flat below. The idea of a fire so far from the ground was terrifying. It kept me awake when I stayed there and haunted me, even during the day. When Ronan Point, a twenty three floor tower block in London collapsed after a gas explosion I watched the news in horror. After that I nver really felt safe there. Things were not all bad up in the sky though. The views were wonderful, looking down on little rows of houses and fields where there were sometimes horses. Directly below was a fire station and I would spend hours watching the firemen practice putting out blazes in a special concrete tower beside it.

One news story that did capture my imagination was the Apollo programme. Dad, who would take me outside to look at the stars and tell me the names of the constellations, followed it with interest. We watched riveted, as Apollo 8 orbited the Moon and astronauts Frank Borman, Jim Lovell and William A. Anders became the first humans to see its dark side. With children’s shows like Thunderbirds and Lost In Space, the idea of going into space seemed as if it might   soon become as normal as getting onto one of the cruise ships that regularly left Southampton Docks. In fact, as I’d never been anywhere near a cruise ship, getting into a spaceship and flying to the Moon seemed far more likely.

Towards the end of the year my new nephew was born. When the midwife asked Alex what he was going to be called she said, “Christopher.”
“He’s the fifth Christopher today,” the midwife replied.
“Oh,” said Alex, “then he can be Matthew.”
And so I became an auntie for the second time and now the third youngest in the family instead of the second

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Marie

Writer, walker, coffee drinker, chocolate eater, lover of nature, history and the little things that make me smile

12 thoughts on “Memories of the late 1960s – not fitting in”

  1. Mixing personal history with the culture back then is so cool! Your descriptions of your mother are especially vivid. I remember too not fitting in, especially with a prayer covering on my head from 4th grade forward.

    1. Thank you. I think not fitting in was a blessing in disguise. It gave me a thick skin and compassion for others who are different.

  2. Great memories for me too, Marie. I sat opposite you in Miss Please’s class in the final year at junior school. I remember listening with fascination to you telling me about your nephews Nat, Matt and Andy and that you were an aunt at such a young age. I loved listening to you. You seemed to have a more interesting and exciting life than I did! It seems like only yesterday.

    I am in the right hand small photo above the large photo that you are in. I am in the second from the front row, kneeling down so you can only just see my head, almost in the centre. I think when that photo was taken I was in the first year. Miss Charnley was my teacher. I have a copy of the photo but sadly it is rather torn and marked in places. I still remember quite a few of the names of the children in my class and can identify them in the photo.

    I don’t have any bad memories of Miss Please but I do remember being picked on by a teacher in the 3rd year, a Mrs Thomas. I used to dread going to school for the few months she was there. She left mid term and never came back. Do you remember her? I then went into Mr Hemingway’s class which was a much happier experience! I remember too, the little boy you described, though I wouldn’t have been able to recall his name.

    1. I do remember you sitting near me and I certainly remember Mrs Thomas, she was horrible. Mr Hemmingway’s class was the highlight of my childhood. He was a fantastic teacher. Miss Charnley was still there when my boys went there, although she didn’t remember me. I wonder what happened to them all?

  3. oddly enough the headmistress at my infant school in about 1963 was, I think, Miss or Mrs Blease. And we made up rhymes! I, too, remember wishing my mum would be more up-to-date. Some of the ‘mothers’ were easily 10 years younger than her. I only seem to have a handful of memories from what must have been 3 school years. Thankyou for sharing yours.

    1. What a coincidence. Having older parents seemed to be a terrible thing back then, but I think it gave me a greater appreciation of history as I grew older. Not fitting in as a child has stood me in good stead as an adult too. I still don’t really fit in but now I’m glad about it 🙂

  4. You could so easily have been writing about me but a few years previously; I didn’t fit in either. I was small for my age and quite shy and my mother was like yours, stuck in a time warp. She insisted on keeping my hair in an old fashioned short style fastened at one side by a 3ins hair clip, my clothes were drab compared to other kids and in winter she made me wear a liberty bodice – the fore-runner to today’s modern body warmer but worn under the clothes. It was grey with buttons down the front and was the ugliest garment ever invented – I was the only girl in the whole primary school who wore one and I was often laughed at when we had to get changed for PE.

    My school photo was taken in the same year as yours but I was three years into grammar school by then – and yes, it’s a long one just like yours and I still have it rolled up. I managed to ditch the old fashioned hair style when I was 14 and I had a Twiggy style urchin cut for a while. After years of being bullied because of my small size and old fashioned look I finally gained some confidence when I was 15 and started to grow my hair long. When I finally left school I went from mousey brown to blonde, my confidence soared and I never looked back after that.

    Thinking back now, my younger years weren’t ALL bad, there were some good times, but knowing what I’ve learned since I wouldn’t want to go back to them.

    1. I don’t think I’d want to go back to those days either. I know all about the dreaded liberty bodice. My sister was made to wear them. Luckily I escaped, probably because you couldn’t get them any more, but I did have to wear a vest, ALWAYS! I think the times changed so rapidly in the late fifties and early sixties and older parents struggled to keep up. There must have been an awful lot of children like us, although we felt very alone at the time.

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