Lynda O'Neill: Reflections on a Pompey Childhood
So much of my poetry is rooted in my childhood experience, and motivated by an effort to bring my experiences of this remarkable city to life. Impressions of that past float up into my mind regularly, fragments of a past, and visions of people, both long gone – but preserved, I hope, in my poems. What follows are some of these impressions and some of my reflections on them. I hope they have both the vividness and the strangeness of memory: how much our pasts sometimes feel like dreams in that curious combination.
Mornings regularly spring to mind. How different family life was back in my childhood, and how much more were we together and connected in those times before mobile phones and other distractions:
Mum would be ‘up and doing’ early. The Home Service buzzed downstairs as she lit the fire with newspaper, perhaps singing ‘Little things mean a lot’. I would smell breakfast and sprint across the icy flower-patterned lino, wash in the cold bathroom, get dressed. Maybe I would put on the red cable twinset Nan had knitted in loose stitches or a corduroy skirt Mum had run upon the Singer sewing machine that produced pink party dresses, hand-smocked on the bodice, as well as curtains and furniture covers. In my teenage years, which she later told me were her favourite part of my childhood because ‘you made me laugh a lot’, she would make me Mary Quant dresses of some complexity. This does her credit as I was often a sulky teenager.
Breakfast was bacon, egg, tomatoes, fried bread or yesterday’s potatoes, crisply fried. If it wasn’t a school day I would take out the dressing-up box and put on a torn dress printed with blue cabbage roses, tripping over its circular skirt in scuffed black Cuban heels, watch my reflection in three sections of the mirror on Mum’s dressing table. I’d curtsey to an imaginary queen, be a moony-eyed bride with a net curtain veil, or Debbie Reynolds, singing and soppy in ‘Tammy’, which I had seen at the Troxy. Perhaps Max Bygraves’ ‘I’m a pink toothbrush’ would drift upstairs. I read books about Mary Poppins and Wurzel Gummidge. Or one of the Mallory Towers books by Enid Blyton, set in a boarding school where girls had double-barrelled names, shingled hair and the sashed gymslips my sister would later suffer at Grammar School. In these books there were midnight feasts and French teachers exclaiming ‘Quelle horreur!’. It was another universe.
I have never understood why people say they don’t like writing letters, because I loved writing from a young age. I enjoyed reading, and a walk to the Carnegie Library in Fratton where I grew up was a weekly treat. Mum and Dad were readers and had good vocabularies. Mum corrected my grammar frequently.
My father, Joe, was of medium height and always wore glasses. He had been captured in Crete during the war and spent three years in a prison camp, but rarely spoke about it. For a while he worked at the grocery store of the Co-op – we were very much a Co-op family. The Portsmouth branch had the highest dividend in the country – one shilling and nine pence. Then he became an insurance agent, a job for which he wasn’t at all suited as he wasn’t in the least pushy.
Linda's mum and dad at the time of her wedding.
Dad would be back for lunch in his peaked cap, long khaki overcoat flapping round his cycle-clipped trousers. I’d swipe my face with a flannel to wash off Mum’s red lipstick when I smelt steak and dumplings, simmered for hours or cooked in the pressure cooker. She would feed my imagination by laying a place for my imaginary friend Tiggy Stevens, named by an uncle, who embarrassed me by bringing up his existence in my thirties. I’d feed and talk to Tiggy while I cleaned my blue and white striped Woolworths’s plate with bread sawn from a sandwich loaf. Pudding might be a sublime apple pie or Charlotte with custard. After dinner (never called lunch) we would leave the house with my sister in her big navy-blue pram and in half an hour would arrive at Nan’s Southsea house.
Nan and Grandad
I had a wonderful maternal grandmother, Ethel, who spoilt me rotten. She was large, and always wore a flowered wrap-around pinafore in a small colourful pattern. To this day, I am still drawn to this fabric design. She swore a lot, without malice, in her rich Suffolk accent, and appears in some of my poems:
Sometimes we were giddy up in The Gods
and the stairs must have been
a breathy struggle for Nan,
vast in her fifties under the loose grey coat.
This is a memory of when she took me to the Kings Theatre every year for the pantomime. I still remember the pleasure she felt at the occasion:
Nan's arm went like a piston
into our shilling quarter of toffees
and she still had room for a Walls vanilla tub.
‘Where Nan Lived’ tries to capture her in her own domain, the house (destroyed to make way for Waitrose) in Lennox Road North, but that poem is also an evocation of Marmion Road and environs of decades past.
Linda, her younger sister, mum, and nan.
Nan’s Boxing Day suppers resound in my memory; carving a mammoth turkey onto her large wedding present meat plate, home-made pickles, Tunis cake and iced fruit cake infused with brandy. Whenever we left her house to go home, I wondered if Muffin the Mule, The Woodentops or Bill and Ben would be on the telly. Perhaps Dad would let me comb and part his Brylcreemed hair or play Hangman.
My grandfather Tom died when I was young. He took me on regular Sunday walks, and I remember him very fondly.
My mother Joan, a full-time housewife who later worked for some years in a school kitchen, was self-effacing to a fault. She was embarrassed about her prominent nose and slim until middle age, probably because she was energetic in doing housework, hand-washing our clothes and walking everywhere with a pram. She was a hard-working housekeeper, cook and a ‘good manager’, the highest praise in those days.
Linda, her sister and mum and dad in the family garden.
Later, glad of a stone hot water bottle if it was winter, I’d hop into bed, trying to avoid the snakes under the bed or the witch near the window who wanted to grab my feet. I’d lie awake and listen to the comforting sound of trains whistling as they passed or the foghorn of the Gosport ferry boat in the harbour. The Guildhall clock would chime the hour, reminding everyone of ‘Play up Pompey, Pompey play up…’
Alan Bennett, a favourite writer of mine, says that a happy childhood gives you nothing to write about. He has found plentiful material in his, and so have I. It was a perfectly ordinary working-class childhood and my parents were enlightened and tolerant. My father gave me a love of music; from my mother I inherited an irreverent sense of humour shared with my younger sister. They took me to the theatre in London and to Navy Days at the Dockyard. The poem ‘Dinnertime’, by the way, attempts to capture the vividness, vibrancy, and noise of the dockyards of the 50s and 60s.
Like many other kids of my generation,] I failed the 11 plus, an exam that was very divisive and that often had long-term impacts on people’s careers and life-choices. We weren’t given the chance, for example, to take GCEs. All the same, at Kingston Modern (now Portsmouth Academy) we were taught French for a while, a novelty in secondary modern schools back then, and taken to concerts at the Guildhall, where we saw famous soloists. Visiting Paris with the school (at a cost of £28, at the time a princely sum), I acquired a French penfriend who I wrote to for fifty years until she died.
At fourteen, in competition with girls from all over Portsmouth, I passed an exam that enabled me to learn shorthand and typing. It meant I would have, in the phrase of the day, ‘Something to fall back on’, and more options than shop or factory work. Besides, secretarial work was well paid at the time.
Possibly because of the war, there were many single female teachers at Kingston Modern. Some were distinctly odd and appear in my poems, though I expect most children see some of their teachers as eccentric. One smacked me merely for using paint instead of crayon on a map. Another was rumoured to keep a bottle of gin in her handbag. My English and Music teachers were excellent, I now realise. A beady eye and good memory have provided me with a lot of detail from my childhood and education.
Linda and her sister.
When I left at sixteen to start work, offices were full of characters who fascinated me, and I entertained my parents with their sayings and exploits.
There was Mr Nattrass, the Chief Clerk of the City Engineer’s Department, who wore an ancient shabby green suit with a waistcoat and limped very badly as he had a false leg. He swigged many glasses of water when he arrived at the office. I sat in the typing pool, terrified I would have to answer the phone (phones in homes were unusual in those days) and cut off senior people’s calls as a result. A colleague told me that one of the senior officers had tried to put his hand down her low-cut blouse. This was the early sixties, and in my first job I was summoned to take shorthand by a buzzer formerly used for domestic servants.
These jobs gave me friends I am still in contact with in my seventies. In 1998 at the suggestion of a work colleague I went to a creative writing class at an arts centre in Winchester. Three good tutors taught me a great deal and I began to be published in poetry magazines and placed in competitions a year later. I am a founding member of the North Hampshire Stanza Group and attend meetings of Winchester Muse. I have read at the latter’s meetings and Winchester Poetry Festival events. I belong to Second Light, an organisation for older women poets, and have been to their workshops and residential courses.
Poetry has been a late means of self-expression and has brought me a sense of achievement – and many friends.
Lynda O’Neill is an important poet whose work is in part a repository of Portsmouth’s literary, cultural, and historical identities. Further information on Lynda’s life and work can be found on the Portsmouth Literary Map.