Wednesday, 22 July 2015

Mum dying and becoming an orphan

When Mum died in 1977 I went to her funeral but I didn’t feel gloomy. Most of my life she had been ill or sad or both and I thought she would be better off in Heaven with my Dad and her parents. One thing that was quite nasty was that most of her former friends from work and people who had got to know her during her time in hospital didn't come to the funeral. I don't know why because I had gone to quite a lot of trouble to tell them. I called on some, phoned some from a telephone box and even wrote to a couple. A few did come of course and a few others sent flowers but most of them didn't seem bothered. I had enough money to pay for what she would have thought was a "respectable" funeral and for her to be buried and not cremated.

When I was a grown-up and happened to be anywhere in the St Albans area I used to visit her grave. It was only a short trip off the M1 and it would have felt horrible not to make the effort. Now I have moved over to west Wales I doubt I will make the trip again but I can picture her inside my head and of course I have some photos of her grave and also of Dad's grave that is an older part of the same cemetery.

At the same time as seeing Mum's grave  I used to put flowers on the grave of an old school friend who had died in an accident on the Watford by-pass the previous year. His grave was 2 rows down and 1 grave across from my Mother's plot. I must have visited his grave 6 or more times over the years. But then one year his stone had vanished and there was a different stone there. I asked at the site office and they knew nothing about any changes. I have never managed to find my friend's stone again but I kept looking for ages! I think the family must have had the body moved?

I was born in 1955, Dad died in 1958 and Mum died in early 1977 so by the time I was 21 I felt as if I was on my own except for Jane and Mrs H my land-lady. Dad's parents were still alive but we were not in regular contact. I had their address and phone number but once I knew they were not coming to Mum's funeral I never bothered with them again.  My Mother's parents had lived in Southern Rhodesia (as it was then) with Mum's sister who never married. She is still alive but very old and I write to her a couple of times a year. I don't remember exactly when Mum's parents died but it certainly was in an off-road accident when my Mum was still quite newly married. Her Dad used to work for De Beers (the diamond people) in South Africa and he was waiting to start a new job when he was killed. Life in Africa as a mining engineer was exciting but dangerous in those days.

Wednesday, 15 July 2015

Back to school

There was lots of different types of technician at the school. There were about equal numbers of men and women with me as the youngest employee and one (Mr Hearne) who was 64 and in his last year before retiring.

It was strange getting used to the different ways of working in a mixed school and in a fairly "rough and ready" factory. People used to say please and thank you in the school and there was far less bad language. Because I was the new boy I didn't get many of the more interesting jobs but once I was able to show that I knew what I was doing things like that gradually got better.

There was a staffroom for people to use but only the teachers seemed to sit there. It seemed to be the rule that the technicians didn't go in. It didn't bother me and I would take my sandwiches out onto the playing field if the weather was nice or sit in the corner of the woodwork room if it was cold or wet.

My working day was from 8:30AM to 4:30PM which meant I had a bit more free time than I was used to having and that was nice. But what was much, much nicer was when I first met one of the kitchen staff walking out of the side gate of the school at the same time as me. I thought I recognised her and I was right because she didn't live that for from me and we had a few friends in common. I never guessed that I would one day marry her.

Jane had come to St Albans to be with boyfriend who had been moved there by his employer from Wolverhampton. He found another girl he liked better than Jane so he dumped her but Jane didn't want to tell her parents what had happened - she felt rather ashamed I think - so she stayed on in St Albans living in a bed-sit.

It took me a while to be brave enough to ask her out but once I had managed that part we started spending most of our free time together!


Sunday, 12 July 2015

Trying to better myself - part 2

I don't have many sleepless nights but I did before my 9:30 interview for the school technician job. I had never bothered to buy a smart suit but Mrs H got me a new shirt and tie and made sure I wore them! "I don't want you looking untidy" was what she said.

It was the first proper interview I had ever had. I had prepared answers to all the questions that Mr T guessed they would ask me and I was pleased that almost all his predictions were correct. There was also a short practical test as well but after working in the factory the school test seemed really simple. There were three other people after the job so I was a bit surprised when it was offered to me. Looking back that was one of the most important days of my life.

It was strange leaving the factory for good after nearly 5 years. It was an all male environment and some of the staff were real "hard cases". The toughest were the few who had worked in the London Docks or in the Armed Forces and I was always polite to them! I gained a lot of practical skills to go with the knowledge I had picked up at school while I was working there and they were happy times.

The London Docks - a home for "hard men"!

On my last day at the factory they gave me a bicycle. I have often wondered exactly where they got it from as it was almost new and it must have been quite expensive. I used that bike for nearly 10 years before buying a new one.

I used to walk past the factory on my way home from my new job and sometimes I would pop in and have a word with the boss about the best way to do a particular job. He was always pleased to help me and it was good that he was able to come to my wedding.

Saturday, 11 July 2015

Trying to better myself - part 1

After a long hunt I found a letter that my school sent me over 40 years ago pretending to be sorry that I wasn't going into the sixth form. I wasn't allowed to go because the sixth form had a different uniform and I didn't have the money to buy it. No uniform meant you couldn't go. My foster parents wouldn't pay, the Council said it wasn't their responsibility and the school said "no exceptions can be made". I hope things have improved since then! 

In those days it wasn't hard finding work at 16 and I worked for a small engineering firm down one of the alleyways off the main shopping street in St Albans. I didn't expect any support once I left the foster home and I didn't get any. My foster parents did it for the money as Mrs X was a bit disabled. I do wonder about "what if this" or "what if that" sometimes but not often because it wasn't going to change anything. Some kids like me went to the National Children's Home in Harpenden, the next station north, but fostering was supposed to be much better than going there!
The National Children's Home

I found maths quite easy so the boss started to give me the job of doing the costings for the different jobs people wanted him to do. He was glad to get rid of that particular job and the small bit of extra responsibility meant that I got a small pay rise. We had 30 minutes for our lunch break and some of the men used to go off to the nearest pub for a "liquid lunch". I used to stay in the factory and eat the sandwiches that Mrs H had made for me. Sometimes the boss would sit with me and it was him that suggested that I try to get some extra qualification.

A typical small engineering factory

Eventually I took his advice and I did some City and Guilds qualifications at the college in St Albans and ended up as a technician at a school helping in what they call Design Technology now. I ended up working at the school by accident. The lecturer who taught me for most of my C&G courses also worked at a school and when there was a job going there he encouraged me to apply and then helped me prepare for the interview. Mr T was an all-around good bloke and had a big impact on how I became a man. He would be shocked if he ever found out that I saw him as a bit of a father figure to make up for the Dad I never had!

Thursday, 9 July 2015

Leaving Foster Care

When I left foster care I was told that lodgings had been found for me with a Mrs H. She lived where the Maltings Development is now right in the centre of St Albans and only 3 minutes from my job. I can still remember the day that I moved from my foster home into the back bedroom in Mrs H's little house. All I had in the world could be fitted into a brown suitcase and two large bags and I expect that seems strange to people today who seem to have so many possessions.

My foster home was 3 minutes from here

Mrs H was quite old, but she was lovely. She looked after me like a real Mother would and I was very happy there. I stayed there until after I got engaged to Jane my late wife. You didn't usually live together until after you were married in those days but Mrs H didn't say anything when Jane sometimes stayed overnight. Mrs H had been a widow for many years, her husband had been killed in a factory accident when they hadn’t been married very long. It was one of the very few times I cried as an adult when I went to her funeral. I helped carry her coffin from the hearse into the church and I was pleased that I had been asked to do that.

My lodgings with Mrs H were 2 minutes from here

I only saw my foster parents a few times after I moved out. My O level results were sent on a postcard to their address (no going into school to collect results in the 1970s) so I went down to collect them. Grades went from 1 to 9 with 1 to 6 counting as a pass. I got 1s in Maths, Physics and Chemistry - a grade 2 in art and a grade 3 in English. I was pleased with 5 passes and later on I used the results to get onto FE college evening classes. Lots of people did evening classes in those days and I made some new friends there. We used to go as a group to watch the professional football in Luton or in Watford, travelling there on the train.

It is strange that so few books have been written about the 1970s. It was an exciting time to live through and in some ways much better than now. There were no computers in schools and just a few in the college. Nobody used mobile phones and there was no internet or email. Like now social workers were always moaning about case loads and they always tried to look trendy. They never did much for me!

Wednesday, 8 July 2015

Life in foster care - part 1

I reckon that I only went into foster care because of the 1939-1945 war even though I born about a decade later. My Dad's brother John and my Dad both served in the Far East. Uncle John was killed in a Japanese air raid just before the fall of Singapore and of course my Dad came back in a terrible physical and mental state. Uncle John was engaged when he went off to War and I used to wonder if Uncle John’s "young lady" used to think about him as the years went by? Parents today probably can hardly imagine what it is like to send their children off to war. I wondered sometimes would Uncle John have got married as planned if he had come back safe? Perhaps he could have looked after me rather than me ending up in the foster child system? It is sad that I don't remember Uncle John or my Dad other than as fading pictures in a photograph album.

The British surrender at Singapore - Uncle John had died a few days before 

I have never felt very upset about those foster child years. Even in the 1970s men didn't show much emotion and mostly I just got on with my daily life. I used to visit my Mother in the mental hospital but she quickly got worse and quite soon hardly recognised me. I feel a bit guilty now but the weekly visits soon became monthly and once she didn't know who I was and didn't recognise photos of her own husband there didn't seem much point in visiting her. It wasn't dementia she had: it was something else with a long 3 part name that ended in syndrome. She would have been OK I expect if Dad had still been around to support her so the war got in the way again.
My foster parents never hit or abused me. They never starved me or stole from me. The house was warm and I had a room of my own. But they never showed any love for me or any interest in me. That was just the way it was back then. I had a front door key so I was able to come and go as I wanted. They didn’t care what I was doing providing the “Boys in Blue” – the Police! – never got involved.

Sometimes it was a bit difficult being a foster child at school. Once a year there was a evening meeting where parents could meet the teachers and the teachers never seemed to know that I was fostered so they would get confused about the different surnames. Going on school trips was always a long battle to get the money. Especially the time my year group went off to St Malo in France!
I used to walk past the another school's playing fields that used to be on Alma Road backing on to the gasworks and sometimes I felt quite jealous of the posh kids with their posh Mother’s sitting in their posh cars to take them back to their posh homes.

Tuesday, 7 July 2015

How it all started

I'm 60 now, male, a former foster child, a former widower and now newly married.  

I was fostered during the 1960s and 1970s. It was a different world then but some things never change. All the people involved are long since dead although the middle of St Albans hasn't changed that much. I lived near the Abbey Station (the Watford line station) not far from the Cathedral. I was a foster child from 14 to 16+ when I had to leave school after my O levels. 

The Abbey Station - the line to Watford.

My Father had served in India and Burma during WW2 and when he came back to England he was in poor health. Physically he had suffered a lot fighting the Japs and mentally he never seemed to recover from the dreadful things he saw when he was out there. I don't remember him at all as I was only 3 when he died. There is a photograph of him holding me as a baby and you would swear he was mid 50s rather than mid-30s.
Dad's parents lived in the East Riding of Yorkshire. They had two boys, my Dad and my Uncle John. John died in the war and after Dad died we (Mum and I) had almost no contact with them. There was just a card on my birthday with a 10/- postal order and another card at Christmas with a 12/6d postal order but even the cards stopped when I was 18. They both died a long time ago.  
My Mother coped with widowhood well for a while but in the end her assorted eating disorders meant she went into one of the many large mental hospitals near St Albans. So I went into the fostering system. There was another family who also fostered children next door to where I ended up. Rosemary was their foster child and she was my first teen crush. She then moved to a more permanent place up on King Harry Lane and I only saw her again by accident. The last time I saw her during my years in St Albans was by the Old Clock Tower in about 1973/4. Over the years I often wondered what happened to her.

Not everything I write is going to be in the exact time order. Perhaps when I finish the story I will be able to tell readers what order they need to read things!
The Clock Tower - just as I remember it (except for the old fashioned people)