The Memory Afternoons are part of the Essex Coast to Coast project. The idea is to work with some members of our community who have a rich archive of personal stories to share. Delivering a little happiness is also part of the project.
A recent session saw thirteen senior ladies gathering in Clacton. The weather was a little challenging outside. Inside and the heating and welcoming atmosphere managed to warm everyone up.
You know that you are amongst friends when raffle tickets are being sold. There is something communal about everyone paying out a small stake for a stubbly ticket. In it to win it, etc, but it really is the taking part that counts.
And that’s pretty much how Johnno structured this leg of the Warm and Toasty Coast to Coast roadshow. Everyone has an equal voice and uplifting story to share. The secret is how best to bring these out and be celebrated.
The work with the Clacton Widows Friendship Group is a slight change from the previous approach. Past sessions in Colchester and Walton-on-the-Naze involved Warm and Toasty rolling up at residential establishments.
The Clacton ladies meet each fortnight in a community hall. This changes the dynamics. There is a natural warmth in meeting in a shared residential establishments. But how do you bring this to a coastal community hall in mid-February?
Listening, supporting and generally smiling all help the stories to flow. Johnno doesn’t make it up as he goes along, but then Warm and Toasty isn’t scripted either.
The first hour was put aside for the Memory Afternoon event. Johnno introduced the topic of childhood. This could relate to many strands: school days, food, family, friendship and games.
Some of the Clacton ladies had to think back nine decades or so to find these memories. The clarity in which they were told made them sound like a story that took place last week. The detail was far removed from the modern world.
Pat spoke about some of the games that she enjoyed playing as a young girl:
“I use to love skipping. Especially when they had two ropes. I can’t do it now. We played shove ha’penny at home. If you were the winner then you got an orange.”
An explanation of the finer rules of shove ha’penny was then asked for. It sounded like more fun than a night in front of the soaps.
Nostalgia needn’t be rose tinted. Barb was keen to tell it like it is when describing her school days:
“I started school when I was four on my fourth birthday. I thought school was dreadful. I hated it for the rest of my life. We had to go to bed in the afternoon. I couldn’t mix. I was terribly shy.”
This was quite a revelation, given that Barbara is a bubbly senior lady with a wicked sense of humour. There was a lesson there for us that childhood days needn’t define your future direction.
Cath used a beautiful technique of explaining the changes in her childhood by using the seasons as a reference:
“Things went in seasons. The games changed. No one said anything, they just changed. The girls had different playgrounds from the boys. We ate very sickly things like Golden Syrup on bread. There was always condensed milk. We wrote on slates with chalk. One day they let us write on piece of paper.”
Johnno suggested the idea of condensed milk sandwiches for a Warm and Toasty interval refreshment. Sometimes progress really is for the best…
Geraldine described the change from primary to second education:
“All the villages nearby went to the big school. We had nice teachers. I loved PE and drama.”
Schooling in a rural community was also referenced by Lynne:
“My eldest sister took me on the back of a bike. There were buses but they were very rare. It was about three miles to school. It use to snow very heavily. The miners would make a track down the middle of the lane. There was two classes. We had an open fire.”
Multiculturalism may not have been a phrase familiar with the ladies during their school days. An understanding of the wider world was part of their education.
“I remember Empire Day. It was on 24 May. We all went out into the playground. There was Britannia, who was an elder girl all dressed up. A boy played John Bull. Other children were dressed up in costumes from Empire countries. I was West Indies one year.
Then the Maypole came out with the piano. We sang songs from around the world. It stopped before the War. I should have had another two years at school, but the War started.”
A lifelong interest in reading was described by Barbara:
“I was always reading. We had an outside toilet. I use to sit there and read! My father went to the library and brought me books that he use to read.
We bought sherbet dips from the shop. We played skipping with a big long rope. We use to say: All in together girls. Also What time is it Mr Wolf? We walked to school, as well as walking home for lunch.
The school didn’t have school dinners. We were healthier then because we were in the open air a lot.”
June reflected on the differences between her infant school, and the wider world at secondary school.
A touching account was told about mixing with children brought up playing tennis and hockey. It seems that social backgrounds have long since been a defining factor in our education.
Jean described an innocent story of trying to offload a kitten litter on her teachers:
“My cat had kittens. My Mum said get rid of them. I gave them to the teachers! I was the eldest sister. My Mum said I had to always look after them.”
Janet was able to recall work and play as part of her school days:
“At primary school we all had a desk and an inkwell. You sat at that desk all day. The teachers came to you. At secondary school I did long jump and high jump. After the War there wasn’t much traffic. Our playground was the road. We played cricket. Anyone who had a decent gate found that it was used as the stumps.”
The first hour of the Memory Afternoon session overran. These stories were so unique that it seemed a shame to cut them short. But tea and biscuits were needed to keep Warm and Toasty energies focussed.
The conversations continued. One of the joys of Warm and Toasty is seeing how the sessions allow close friends to share stories that the group wasn’t aware of. In life, we always have plenty to learn…
The final 45 minutes with the Clacton Widows Friendship Group was a time to be entertained. Johnno had lined up the fantastic 4Front barbershop quartet to spread some happiness.
The boys pitched the session perfectly. The songs spanned the 50’s and 60’s. Some background was explained, as well as the expected corny jokes. Audience participation took place soon after the first song was finished.
Sadly the pace of modern life meant that it was time for the Clacton Widows Friendship Group to go their separate ways.
4Front surprised the ladies by serenading them in the kitchen as they washed up the cups and plates – a modern day memory that will last.
“You delivered happiness, Johnno”
…was the parting comment from one of the Clacton ladies.
First class as well.