When 1970 dawned, it marked the beginning of the second decade of my life. If the 1960’s had seemed filled with possibilities, music, flowers and love, this new decade seemed filled with sadness, at least in our house. My lovely Dad was dead and life would never be the same for us. Money, which had never been of any concern to me, suddenly became a big issue, mostly because we didn’t have enough of it. Mother got something called a Widow’s Pension, but it wasn’t enough to pay the mortgage and feed and clothe us. She still had to go to work and, when I wasn’t at school, I was left in the care of Pappy, who was desolate at the loss of his eldest son.
The sense of loss that seemed to pervade the year was not helped when Paul McCartney announced the Beatles were splitting up. Their impromptu concert on the rooftop of the Apple Records headquarters in Abbey Road, just over a year before, would be their final public performance. The summer of love had turned into a long round of recriminations and lawsuits.
We never talked about politics in our house and I still have no idea of the political views my parents held but it was hard not to notice a change of government. For as long as I could remember, pipe smoking Harold Wilson had been Prime Minister. Now his place was taken by Ted Heath, a man whose shoulders went up and down when he laughed and who seemed to spend half his time sailing around on a yacht called Morning Cloud. It may have just been coincidence, but the change of government appeared to precipitate a summer of unrest and disenchantment.
The troubles in Northern Ireland were always in the news. At ten years old I had no idea what the fighting was about or the long, bitter history behind it. The British Troops had been sent in to ‘keep the peace’ in August 1969 but, as far as I could see from the news reports, there was nothing peaceful going on whatsoever. There were riots in Belfast, film of people in the streets throwing things at police and soldiers, injured men being carried off bleeding and some actually killed. To me it didn’t look like ‘troubles,’ it looked like a war.
Then there was the dockers strike. This was mostly peaceful but there was much frightening talk of food shortages and a state of emergency was called, with troops at the ready. Having seen on the news what soldiers on the streets meant in Northern Ireland, this worried me a great deal. In the end the strike only lasted two weeks but it was a sign of things to come.
School felt like the one place there was joy and colour, somewhere I could forget my own sadness, just for a little while. Thankfully the horrible Miss Please and Mrs Thomas were behind me and I had a new teacher, Mr Hemingway. This was the first time I’d ever had a male teacher and he turned out to be both kind and funny. Our new classroom was at the very end of the school, closest to the main entrance. The wooden desks were arranged in pairs and, in an effort to make us all pay attention and not chatter, Mr Hemingway made every girl sit next to a boy. The boy next to me was called Nicky Gay, a name that would have been unfortunate today but, at the time, just suggested he was happy. He actually was and, although we didn’t exactly become friends, we got along quite well.
Mr Hemingway was fond of giving us all nicknames and making jokes. Even so he had a dusty old plimsole, called Jim, that he told us would make acquaintance with the backside of anyone who misbehaved. Whether Jim was actually a deterrent or not I’m unsure but I don’t remember anyone ever getting beaten with him.
Mr Hemingway was also a Francophile. He had a camper van and would spend every summer holiday touring around France. He often showed us photos of these holidays and, although we weren’t officially supposed to be learning French until the next year, he began to teach us to speak it. He had a piano accordion and would teach us French songs like Sur Le Pont D’Avignon. We also had a wooden shop in the corner of the classroom stocked with empty food boxes, bottles, cans and plastic fruit. One day every week any question we asked in class had to be asked in French and we would practice buying and selling in French using the little shop. Remembering “Puis-je aller aux toilettes,” became vitally important and I have Mr Hemmingway to thank for my French vocabulary.
Mr Hemingway’s classroom was the one bright spot in a grey and dismal kind of year. For the first time in my short life the end of a year seemed like a cause for celebration. Naively, I thought 1971 would be better.
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