Sandwiched between an upbraiding of a less than helpful Lichfield shopkeeper and a review of The Hunt Pony Club Meet, readers of the Lichfield Mercury’s popular “Carousel” column “ – for women readers” could, in January 1967, amuse themselves with these few words about a quite objectionable-sounding child.
Many children are going to school for the first time, Susan among them. She has firm ideas about what she’s going to do when she gets there. She can count to over 100, knows her granny’s and aunt’s telephone numbers, can read books one to three in ITA and intends to help the teacher by not being any trouble. Susan is self-possessed and with decided views about what teacher does. She can put on, and button up her own coat, and never has trouble fitting her shoes to her feet. Teacher will find her co-operative and a little advanced for her age group and I feel that there will be a clash of wills. Teacher, I hope, will win for the sake of discipline in her class.
Personally, I would run a mile from my five year old self here described, the opinionated little chit, as she prepares to enter the state education system at Redhouse Infants School, Aldridge, under the firm but kind authority of headmistress Mrs Bickley. However, I detect in the writer a quiet satisfaction at the nascent independent and critical streak that her affectionate niece was already displaying. Well she might, because I look back with gratitude at the part she played in developing it.
In addition to a monthly piece about farming life in the Derbyshire Times, my aunt, Mary Cooper wrote this weekly column in the Mercury throughout the 1960’s. When she and my Uncle Alfred sold up at the Owletts and moved to their little Welsh hillfarm, she bequeathed the column to Mary Haynes from Lynn Lane House (subsequently the chatelaine of Hanch Hall). Mary Haynes had a by-line in the paper, but during my aunt’s period of authorship, the pieces were written anonymously. This enabled her to be scrupulously truthful in her accounts of the conduct of the traders and service providers of the Lichfield district, who feared her opprobrium!
The activities of her husband and daughter, their cowman, Geoff, and their friends and family pop up intermittently in the columns, and there is a little thrill when I see my name mentioned, of course! Chronicles of current affairs, particularly as they affected the Midlands housewife, are fascinating. Snapshots of Lichfield life nearly 50 years ago sometimes seem to describe an historical period. What I love best are neatly sketched impressions of country life in which she often refers back to the customs and practices of even earlier times. This from 1966:
With the harvest getting into full swing, vast quantities of tea, pop and cider are being poured down parched throats made dry from the dust which fills the air around the combine. Wild life suddenly loses the cover provided by the corn and is driven to sheltering in the kale fields or amongst the growing swedes and mangolds. The fox too must take more risks now while crossing the short stubble. Soon the first card from the South Staffordshire Hunt will be delivered telling us that cub hunting has commenced. By then, the corn harvest will be home and some of next year’s already planted. For those of us with dairy farms the Autumn calving has already begun and older farmers will occassionally find themselves eating “beastings custard”, a rare delicacy almost unknown today. Does anyone, I wonder, still make thrumity? I have only eaten it once but I remember it was made with new wheat and had been slowly cooked for days. Another harvest memory is rabbit pie, baked in an enamel washing up bowl made of up to a dozen rabbits surrounded with “rough puff” pastry which melted in the mouth; and huge windfall apple pies eaten cold
June 1st, 2013, would have been my Aunt Mary’s 100th birthday.
I don’t need this anniversary to prompt reflection of just how special she was. And she hasn’t been gone all that long. The combination of indomitable spirit, hard work, and Welsh mountain air saw both her and my Uncle Alfred get within striking distance of their centenery before they were interred in the idyllically situated, timeless little hill top cemetery of Tai Duon, which overlooks the steeply sloping acres they cultivated during their 40 year “retirement” from farming in Shenstone.
“All of life is education. Learning at home is as important as learning at school,” says the 1960s Redhouse School prospectus to the parents of its pupils, sternly. I heartily agree with this sentiment.
My Aunt Mary gave a master-class in how to deliciously season the everyday fare of the “3Rs” provided by school lessons. When I was very young she gave me, much to my joy and my mother’s horror, a stuffed monitor lizard. She bought me my first stamp album, and started my collection off with a few examples which included some arresting relics of the Third Reich which had arrived on letters from home to her German prisoner of war on the farm. She was the first to have stood my infant self in front of the statue of the “Sleeping Children” in Lichfield Cathedral, and make me really look at it. She taught me to churn butter, make bread, take plant cuttings, and gave me the works of Sigmund Freud to read when I was 13 years old.
She was delighted, and never jealous of her own daughter and I enjoying the educational advantages denied to her. She took an excited interest in everything we ever achieved or endeavoured to do. Unsurprisingly, she had been an able pupil at her school in Walsall Wood in the 1920s, and had demonstrated the necessary aptitude for a grammar school education, but received no support or resources from the family to sustain her in her ambitions:
“School days ended immediately I became 14,” she remembered. My grandmother gave short shrift to any suggestion that Mary should continue her education:
“…..school board man was told ” She’s 14 ! More use to me at home ” A few days before “break up” I went back to school and sat at my desk with the baby , Ted, on my lap.
” What are you here for Horton?”
” Don’t know Miss, I just wanted to come “.
” Well you’re not welcome here anymore – and that child is disrupting my class.”
Out I went into the quiet street – no children’s voices … quiet playground … quiet… everywhere quiet…. At home there were jobs for me to do. School was over for good.”
(How I love the image of my Dad, “the baby, Ted” bouncing animatedly on his big sister’s lap, an unwelcome interloper in the schoolroom.)
No doubt the volume of writing she might have produced had circumstances been different would have overshadowed the modest output of newspaper and magazine articles, and informal autobiographical nots that she left us. But her busy life as a farmer’s wife was nonetheless fulfilling and opened up opportunities for her to persue other great passions throughout her life. At 40, she taught herself to ride and organised fund raising pony trials and gymkhanas at Owletts and elsewhere in Shenstone. In her late 80s she began to have open days of the garden she created in Wales under the National Gardens Scheme! Farmhouse homes enabled her to construct large gardens from scratch, full of interest.
She was a collector, a creator, a counsellor and a character. It’s her laughter that I remember most.
Happy Birthday. Never, ever, forgotten.