Amateur dramatics in Delhi

My father was in several amateur dramatic groups in New Delhi as a set constructor and stage manager. So, with my house play experience under my belt (school posts), I was keen to be involved. I still have a folder of memorabilia from the productions which I was associated with. In chronological order –

“Waiting for Godot” by Samuel Becket. Theatre Workshop production, September 1958. Produced by Walter Gardner-Stanbridge (doyen of the Delhi AD scene), who also took a part. I was the prompter, which was a nightmare as the play has no structure or flow; it is just a stream of incoherent talk and once people got lost it was almost impossible to get them back. Fortunately, there is a lot of repetition anyhow. The play was not universally understood or enjoyed. One playgoer wrote to the local paper to say that waiting for a bus after the show had not been as boring as waiting for Godot.

In my diary for3rd September, I recorded the dress rehearsal as “rather a fiasco. No one could remember their lines and they kept stopping”. The audiences were mediocre too. Fortunately, for the Godot wrap party on 11th, carrots and turnips were replaced by a sensible buffet supper.

“Separate Tables”by Terrence Rattigan, UK High Commission ADC, at the Fine Arts Theatre, November 1958.  I was Doreen the maid. Dad was again stage manager and oversaw the set construction. The photo shows me waiting at table and apparently speaking a line.

Witness for the Prosecution”,  was adapted as a play by Agatha Christie, from one of her short stories It opened in London in 1953, and was a popular court room show. I was in the jury box with my back to the audience and only had to take the oath and murmur “rhubarb”. Furniture was borrowed from the Indian Supreme Court for this production, which showed the networks of the High Commission.

“Harlequinade”, by Terrence Rattigan, was the entertainment at the UK High Commission ADC  New Year Party in 1959. I took part of Muriel Palmer, the daughter of the ageing Romeo. She crashes a rehearsal of the Shakespeare play, appearing on the balcony with a pram and husband (Don Rowland). The photo also shows the ageing Juliet. Dad was stage manager, Mum did costumes (along with Gladys Hill).

“The Queen and the Rebels” by Ugo Betti. By Theatre Workshop, at the Fine Arts Theatre. I had the part of Elina, the concierge (made into a female part). Argia (the queen) was played by Preminda Prem Chand, who drew a line in eyeliner up her leg to represent stocking seams. Produced by Walter Gardner-Stanbridge, who also took a part.

Before I left to return to the UK and university the theatre crowd gave me a farewell party. In the photo Gardner-Stanbridge is in a striped bush shirt with his Indian protégé and the boy’s mother. I am on the right with sister Gillian.

One wonders how many of the parts came to me to keep Dad sweet. There was talk of staging “Anne Frank” with me in the name part but it never came off.

My (gap) year in India

Living in Chanakya Puri blog

I spent only one year in the sixth form at QM, taking two A levels (Geography and French) and one scholarship level (Geography). This was then enough to get into university if the grades were good. I considered Oxford/Cambridge entrance but the timing of the special exams didn’t fit in. After leaving school I joined Mum and Dad in Delhi. Although the term was not in common use then, I look back on this as a “gap” year between school and university, during which I grew up in considerable measure.

By then we had moved out of the centre of New Delhi to Chanakya Puri, the Diplomatic Enclave, first to a downstairs flat and then to an upstairs flat in the same cul de sac with a basati (open room on roof for sleeping in hot weather before the monsoon).

Mum and me outside Chanakya Puri house

Dad was in charge of the construction of the British High Commission (HC) compound, which comprised of several apartment blocks as well as offices, a club, swimming pool (photo) etc. The HC social club was the centre of activity. Playing badminton, sometimes with Nunn twins. The Ashoka Hotel and Gaylords were handy for dining and dancing.

British High Commission Delhi – Pool and flats

There were also formal events. Harold McMillan, Prime Minister, came out to lay the foundation stone for the HC, January 1958 and Jill presented a bouquet to his wife. Prince Philip visited in January 1959. Mum took a cine film and I tried to chat up the young army ADC.

Early in my time in Delhi I had my photo taken by Ray Llewellyn who worked at the HC. None of them were very glamorous, although that had been their intention.

During this time I also began to learn to drive, taught by Dad. It was not too successful. Sometimes I drove on the airstrip when Dad was gliding. One day we needed to get to the “compound” and Mum suggested I drive (as she never learned). I backed unskillfully and hit a bollard. Then we had to drive to the compound and confess to Dad.

Dad was keen on gliding, out at Safdar Jang Airport. He went solo and I had a few lessons but unfortunately my instructor was killed and that brought my gliding career to an end. I very much enjoyed the few flights I took. Another catastrophe was when I tried to make chips for Dad but the pan caught fire. He tried to carry it outside but the flames blew back at him and burned his hands badly. He was in a bad state the next day but chose not to tell anyone about it.

Christmas in Delhi

There were several venues for celebrations. At the Anglican church I did a solo in “Silent Night” – I was part of the choir and attended services regularly. There was a children’s nativity play there, “very funny accents but very good clothes. The shepherds had large ridiculous staffs which they could not get through the doors.”

I helped to produce the Nativity Play at the HC compound, helping with the costumes and making the angels’ wings. In the end only one small angel materialised. Jill starred as a shepherd, in Dad’s dressing gown. There wasn’t a very big audience but it went well. There was also a fancy dress party. In the photos Jill and I seem displeased that the beefeater had a prize and she probably didn’t. It was very easy to have costumes made as the local tailors (darzi) could copy from a sketch or picture. I helped design the medieval outfit.

Fancy dress Christmas party in Delhi – my sister as an “evil” (medieval) lady

On Christmas Day “bods” came around with marigold garlands; Daddy’s carpenter with fruit and Manu Lal with cakes and a huge basket. We often received gifts and hospitality from Indian contractors, including Manu Lal and Sons, timber merchants. This went over my head although I enjoyed the presents of saris and jewellery. I don’t suppose Dad really was being bribed.

Being a teenager

Frustration with school

In my 1957 and 1958 diaries I recorded more thoughts and feelings than simply events and activities. I was clearly frustrated about many aspects of school.

“School is futile – a lot of silly, silly rules. It’s not the work I mind it’s the restraint.”

I was not the only one. Towards the end of the year, everyone was on edge, with people flaring up and quarrels breaking out. There was little active rebellion. Once the milk ran out at breakfast and people filled up the cups with tea and wrote MILK in knives on the table.


Looking back, it was the atmosphere of snobbishness which affected me deeply. The contrast between school and my life with the Grandmas, plus my family’s working-class background. I could never let school friends know how I lived when at Gran’s and could never ask them back there. I suppose I gained some aura from having parents overseas – that was not common in those days.

Relationship with parents

My relationship with my parents suffered from seeing them only once a year. I was ambivalent; missing them and looking forward to seeing them, wanting to please my mother but then quarrelling with her.

Even then Mum – she was about 40 – was not willing to have any serious discussion with me about feelings. I didn’t see much of my father but obviously looked up to him. I was tolerant of my sister (7 years younger than me) and rather protective of her.

Grandmas and relatives

My Grandma Brown died, at age 62, while I was at school, Caesar called me into her office and told me that she was very ill and my father was coming back from India. Later he came and told me that Gran had died, but I didn’t go to the funeral.

My relationship with Grandma Readman was tense when I was in my mid-teens, but it was loving and enduring in later years. She was then about 74 and not in good health. I resented having to go to the (horse) races with her:

“How bored I was at the races. I really can’t see what is so entertaining unless you have heaps of money to waste.”

I was definitely not keen on (Great) Auntie Alice, who had no idea of how to relate to teenagers. She ordered me not to read in bed (I was wasting her electricity) and I had to obey “because Mrs P (her housekeeper) will tell”.

“She makes me utterly miserable. I cry because I am angry. I tried to make it up by playing cards with Auntie Alice and Mrs P., but I hated every minute.”

Lack of confidence and self-criticism

I often felt futile and lazy.  “I wish there was someone like me with whom I could discuss subjects and opinions.” I comforted myself that I was learning all the time.

“I think that my life is a long search for a wider realisation of life and the world. I welcome any sort of new knowledge.”

Once, in York – “This afternoon I had a queer depressed feeling and I wept. I had to go out and I went to the library and was better. Gran said it was because I went without food for such a long time. I saw a lot of people of my own age with friends male and female. “I don’t know whether I was jealous or not.”

Anxiety about appearance

My diary is filled with anxiety and worry about my appearance.

“It rather frightens me when I think that I am sixteen. I look not bad when my hair is done properly and my face clean. “

Mum must have been concerned about me, probably my size. She bought me what we used to call a “roll on”. I found this horrible to wear, especially without stockings, when it really did roll up.

Usually I bought my own clothes, with mixed results. One disaster was a huge green coat with a nipped in waist and a wide skirt. But at least it was not a school coat. “I don’t want to be seen by anyone from school when I am in school clothes and that horrid grey coat.” When I did acquire some new “grown-up” clothes I felt rather vain about them. “Now I can be the equal of any girl at school”. “I wish that Mummy could be here to see me in my new clothes.”

Creativity and Learning

My whole life was dominated by the desire to learn more and more and what I really wanted was to get away and read. I aspired to be a professional writer. I decided to carry around a note book to write down any word or phrase I didn’t know for later research –“a mind widener.”

As well as my interest in films, books, knitting and singing in bed, I was writing a play.

“At last I have written something which when typed out looks like something, five pink pages”. (I still have these pages.)

The play was “The Last Chimes”, a highly melodramatic piece about the last hours of a Jacobite lord awaiting execution. Although nothing can avert his death, the hero can thwart his enemy and save his sister, Marion, from the villain’s clutches. Some of my stories and poems do not seem to have survived. I typed out my “Muggins” novel and found it was only 11 pages. “A Poem in Stone” about the Taj Mahal and “Pilgrimage to the Shalimar” appeared in the QM magazine.

Perhaps I was not easy to get on with, with my introspection and ambivalence. I lacked confidence and probably came out as rather negative, certainly self-critical. But at the same time, I had a great impulse to learn and experience things. Probably a fairly typical teenager.

Life at QM 5 – Friendships, “Raves” and “unbridled license”

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The system at QM was that everyone was supposed to have a best friend/partner. Many of our activities involved walking in twos, crocodile style. These relationships were taken seriously, so that to “split” was almost like a divorce. Coming in mid-year, I didn’t develop a close friendship although I often walked with “MMM” – who came from a family of accountants in Sheffield. She later was the first of our year to marry – to an accountant of course. Later, Jill Francis was my walking partner and I also went to stay her family, somewhere near Leeds – this was when I confused the composer Mahler with a washing-up liquid!

biddy cricket

Biddy at the crease

I had the habit to seeking a “best’ friend from out of my form group, which was taboo. I would have liked to be partners with Biddy, who arrived in the 1954 autumn term, but she was in the form below me. Everyone liked Biddy, she was outgoing and a great actress. She came from Edinburgh and had three sisters and a nanny, very exotic.

In January 1955 I sat with Biddy when she got the news about her father’s death from TB. We both moved up into Hall and  were often in the same bedroom. In the Easter break of 1956, I went to stay with Biddy in Edinburgh. We saw the sights – castle, Scottish crown jewels, Scot Monument – 287 steps. Years and years later I found that Biddy had married a New Zealander who she met in Canada and was living in Christchurch. I am still in contact with her.

Jane “Bunty” Sutherland was another friendship outside my own form. She was a year older, also in Hall. Bunty was an only child; her father was a doctor and her mother dressed flamboyantly. We shared Greek lessons and played chess. Being together out-of-school was a problem because of class differences – “I wanted to see Bunty and talk to her at the races, but “she would be in the paddock and Grandma and me in the free ring”. Jane married a Frenchman and went to live in Paris.

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Biddy left and Katy right on Sutton Bank

Katy Hall and I had some wonderful conversations and shared fantasies. In my last year she was struck down with appendicitis and was very ill. At school we had special services for her. Under the anaesthetic she had hallucinations, which we translated into a mystical experience. She recovered but was not allowed to be in the house play, although she was a good actor. There had been discussion of her coming to India with me. In  later years I tried to talk to Katy about all this, but she had grown up into a “posh lady”, married well and pretended not to remember anything about our fantasy life.

 Although we were encouraged to have a special best friend, relationships with older or younger girls were disapproved of. This must have been through fear of lesbianism although we were never told this explicitly. Once Caesar gave us a mysterious sermon. It was all about “not casting your pearls before swine.” None of us had the faintest idea what she meant.

This did not deter us from having “raves” on the older girls. There was great competition for the favours of the most popular sixth formers. The supervised our tables at mealtimes and this gave us opportunities to talk to them – to indulge in our adoration or to make the other worshippers jealous. I showed off about my travels whenever possible. Another opportunity was when they supervised our homework sessions (prep) or took us for “sections”. We watched them at lacrosse matches and afterwards would try to “cloak” them, i.e. rush out at the end of the match and throw their red cloaks over them. Sometimes we pretended to have “raves” just for the heck of it and to annoy other people.

“Sloppiness”, i.e. kissing boys and men, was thought disgusting in my early years at school and older girls who were rumoured to “lead boys on” were heartily disapproved of.  I was critical of love scenes in films. “I am trying to tell you that I love you and there is only one way that I can do it. I love you” (puke).

We were, however, expected to “like” male heroes such as film stars or sportsmen, I raved over Laurence Olivier and his records of Shakespeare – “I like his slow speeches better than his roaring quick ones”. We were swept up in early rock and roll and brought it into the senior dance whenever we could. Many of us selected Pat Boone as our favourite. “You say, ‘he sends me’ and you faint.”

The school chaplain, Mr East, prayed for our deliverance from rock and roll – “Guard them from unbridled license,” so he was obviously against it. We also had a lecture prohibiting us from having any contact with “the village boys.”  Nothing was made explicit and I don’t remember any sex education.

1956 – Trip to India

Getting ready for my trip to India to see my parents in the summer of 1956, I remember packing things that Mum had asked for, trying to make them not look new (for customs purposes), this included custard powder and Bisto.

It had been arranged that Marion Clarke, from Dad’s office would see me onto a plane in London after coming down from York by train. I also met another colleague of Dad’s, John Moore, who lived with his family in Hampstead. I was impressed (in retrospect) when I found that some of them knew a new pop group called the Rolling Stones.

Funeral invoice20200801 (4)In those days, flights had several stops, in this case at Paris, Geneva and Beirut. I had to change planes in Bombay, and it was arranged that someone from the British High Commission would see me onto the transfer to Delhi. The London plane was very late so the kind people in Bombay took me to their flat. Instead of letting Mum and Dad know and putting me on a plane immediately, they let me sleep. I was actually two days late arriving in Delhi. Mum and Dad were out of their minds not knowing where I was and imagining the Funeral invoice20200801 (6)worst (I was then 15). The marigold garlands were brought to the airport and taken back to the fridge several times. You can see from the photo that it had been a fraught trip.

There was a lot to do and see in Delhi. We lived in Wenger’s flat, quite near to Connaught Circus, where we ate ice cream at the “Quality” the only place where it was safe; the alternative was iced coffee at “Volga”. Cottage Industries was a regular stop where we bought Indian knickknacks.  As an alternative we visited the old bazaar. There was swimming at Maiden’s Hotel and a dance at Eastern House (I danced with Daddy).


Birla Temple

Around Delhi, we visited the Juntar Muntar (old observatory), the Qutub Minar (tall tower) and the Saftar Jang tombs. At the latter I nearly fainted at the entrance to Humayan’s tomb, probably because of the heat, and my eyesight was affected again. The Birla Temple and gardens were very ornate and Raj Ghat very moving (cremation place of Mahatma Ghandi).

There were several trips out of Delhi: one to Agra with the Coopers, and their son Colin. I wrote an article about the Taj Mahal –  Poem in Stone – which was published in the school magazine and later became a short story for my writing group.

Taj Mahal

Taj Mahal with our party in the photo opp spot

On a trip south to Hyderabad, we stayed in a house belonging to one of Dad’s business colleagues. We also visited Ootacamund (Ooty), a hill station, which was quite cool and where a posse of several men trooped in to fix the bathroom lighting.


Dal lake and houseboats

We later flew to Srinagar (Kashmir) via Amritsar and Jammu, where we were met by Salama Doono, the houseboat owner. He took us in the shikara (small boat) to see the Moghul gardens – including the famous Shalimar – and gave us flowers. For one trip, up a cold river where there was snow, we needed four paddlers. The men sang as they paddled – Jill’s teddy bear fell in and they sang about Teddy-sahib and “good luck chota mis-sahib ho”. There was a four-course lunch


“Kings House” with kitchen behind

under a large tree. We swam regularly in the lake, from a floating plank. It was so idyllic that we were not disappointed that our departure was delayed by rain and we had another night in houseboat. I wrote another article – Pilgrimage to the Shalimar – for school magazine.


Floating post office which came by every day

On the way back to school I travelled via Karachi, Bahrain, Baghdad, Beirut, Rome and Dusseldorf, to London. I was again met and shepherded onto the train to York after over-nighting.





Everyday life at QM 4 – Improving entertainment

The routine of lessons was enlivened with improving entertainment. There were recitals – usually by little known pianists; lectures – it was at a lecture on heraldry that I realised I needed glasses; and films – usually staid and patriotic classics. In my final year, Miss Rowland took us to Geographical Society lectures in York – “Glaciated and Unglaciated Mountains in Britain.” and Assam – tea, forests, etc.

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York Mystery Plays – Last Judgement

When the York Mystery Plays were performed in St. Mary’s Abbey ruins, we went, bundled up against the cold. Joseph O’Connor played Jesus, but a local actress, daughter of a GP, played the Virgin Mary. It was a very young Judi Dench. I enjoyed the plays and was impressed that we didn’t get home until nearly midnight.

I took piano lessons but was never very good. Entries to the Music Competition, which was judged by an external examiner, were selected by Caesar in order not to have anything which would disgrace the school. Once I competed with a piano duet, but my solo effort the next year was vetoed. I enjoyed singing and was in both the junior and senior school choirs, but “ear training” was another matter (music theory).

sylvan nymphs

Dancing nymphs

There was also a Dance Competition – we had a good training in competitiveness.  I enjoyed Greek dancing especially when it allowed acting and mime.

Miss Cooke-Yarborough, who never tired of telling us how she had studied with Victor Sylvester, took us for ballroom dancing. This was supposed to be an opportunity to practise what would be a valuable social skill. Christmas was celebrated at school with a dance, we were all allocated a partner. In my final year I was partnered with Madame. She was gracious and had a sense of humour, but I had hoped for someone more exciting. After the meal we went to the Red Stairs where the staff received gifts from the girls. These were supposed to be something appropriate. One year I carved a crocodile out of balsa wood for a mistress who led walks.

Drama was not on the curriculum, but there were house plays, I appeared as Marmie in “Little Women” – a Scarborough House production. This was reliably said to have reduced Miss Bowyer to tears.

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Biddy as “The Boy David” surprising his family

In 1956 the Hall house play was extracts from “The Boy David” starring Biddy in the title role. All I could contribute was making the harp. I had more involvement in the Speech Day presentation. It was “The Lady of Armor” and I was an Eastern Potentate coming to woo the lady, with jewels and a bevy of dancing girls. I wore a kind of dressing gown and a huge turban. It took place beside the temple in the garden and was all in mime. “If you (gesture) will marry (point to ring finger) me (gesture), all this (expansive sweep to cover girls and jewels) will be yours (gesture).”

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The Rustics rehearsal

I had much more involvement in the 1957 Hall House play. This was the rustic sequences from “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” produced (directed) by Bunty, who also played Theseus. Biddy was Thisbe/Snug “Let me not play a girl, I have a beard coming.” I was Quince, the joiner.


I wrote a letter about the competition to my family in India, nearly four pages, in rhyme. I described my costume as Quince – the director of the rustic play.

The primal garment was some purple tights,

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Quince introduces his drama troupe

Which looked another colour behind lights.

And then Elizabethan suit of brown

And red, with silly ribbons hanging all around.

A carpenter’s dark apron round me goes

And some of Grans’s old specs sit on my nose.

Once the curtain rose, it all seemed to go well. The other entries were “some rather melodramatic excerpts” from “The Merchant of Venice” by School House and “Twelfth Night” by Garry. School won.

The pinnacle of my dramatic efforts was in the 1958 house play – “The Red Velvet Goat”


Play within a play – Red Velvet Goat

by Josefina Niggli [1]. I was the producer. Bunty was “magnificent” as the female lead. The adjudicator’s comments, in giving us first place, were most flattering.

“A good choice for a producer of some experience (!) not afraid of handling crowds on stage and having to use a number of


Denouement – Red Velvet Goat

inexperienced players. ….. the producer skilfully avoided the temptation to overdress the play either in setting or costume (actually necessity). “

[1] Mexican born American playwright, 1910-1983

Everyday life at QM Part 3 – Games, Exercise and Religion

S House rounders team

Scarborough House rounders team

I was never keen on or good at games, which happened several times a week, although I was in the house rounders team and the second cricket team. My tennis was hopeless. My reports noted my lack of control of the ball.  I tried lacrosse – enough said.  In senior school I applied to be a librarian which meant that I could avoid “sections” (games practice) which were straight after breakfast.

In my final year I was able to swim in a newly built pool in what might have once been a OPENING POOL 1968bowling green. I was part of the opening ceremony and the first to go off top board. It was incredibly cold. I won the prize for crawl style and passed the Intermediate Certificate of the Royal Life Saving Society. My final report for swimming said “Judith has an easy poise in the water and a powerful leg drive.” Pity the latter did not figure in my cricket performance. I played square leg, never bowled, and my run average was two.

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In gym I made up for my lack of agility with impetus. I never could climb a rope, but I could do vaults because I had plenty of weight behind me. “Judith’s vaulting shows good attack but would improve with better footwork” (Spring 1957).

Walks, or runs around the garden, were a regular part of the routine, whatever the weather. One Arctic February I asked if we could have snowballing instead of games and we did. The winters could be frigid – towels freezing on the radiators and sleeping in a scarf. These extremes might have resulted in playing “shipwrecks” or square dancing in the gym instead of walking.

“Walked to the temple in an absolute storm, umbrellas inside out, hurricane, tornado, goodness knows what, all got drenched.” I filmed some winter activities – girls in their Sunday best and wellingtons wading through muddy water in the fields; sliding on ice during walks. Another film showed Mabs under shower of snow shaken from a tree; Jo going through ice on the ha ha.[1]

It was the time of myxomatosis (released in Australia 1950, came to the UK in 1953 and by 1955 95% of the rabbits were dead) and it was pitiful to see the dying rabbits out in the fields. I killed one with a cricket stump.


Funeral invoice20200602Divinity was the study of religion – mental exercise. Religious practice was high on the agenda. The old brew house had been converted into a pleasant panelled chapel. Up to the time I went to QM, religion had been perfunctory for me, but then I began to attend “early” (communion service) (the first time I fell asleep and the teacher thought I had fainted). I began confirmation classes and was confirmed by the Bishop of Selby at the Escrick Parish Church on Passion Sunday 1955. We wore white veils and went to confession beforehand (very high church – I wonder what my sins were). Both my grandmas came from York on the bus. I was highly chagrined to see that they had put lipstick on, but they weren’t used to it and it looked terrible. I didn’t mention this in the diary, but now I still feel ashamed about my embarrassment.

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I was fairly religious at school and prayed a lot to escape my worries. There were challenges (such as reading G.B.Shaw’s preface to “Arms and the Man”, I think). During a rather explicit lesson about the crucifixion Gillian Chapman fainted.  I enjoyed the emotional aspects, such as a choir recital in Ripon Cathedral. At the end of the Gloria a shaft of sunlight came through the widow high up in the roof and lit up the high altar. “It was even as if God had accepted our sacrifices of praise.” One year I recorded by Lent resolutions:

  • Not to think of myself more highly than I ought to think.
  • To get on and not let people bother me with little things.
  • To be pure (whatever that meant!)
  • Not to allow myself to be pulled down by petty things.

Independent thought about religion was not allowed, however. In the sixth form we were asked to write an essay “Why I believe in God” – a biased question to begin with. I wrote about the need for a Creator – a kind of super nature spirit. This was the wrong answer and my mark was low. I should have said that I believed in God because the church told me to. It was a further small chink in the carapace of religion which had begun at the convent in South Africa.

[1] My father gave me a cine camera – Super 8. These films have survived – somewhere.

Everyday life at QM Part 2 – Teachers, discipline and rewards

MissNewtom Latin Greek

Miss Newton

Most of the teachers were strict spinsters. Miss Bridges of Hall was hearty and laughed a lot. There were some younger mistresses who seemed more human. I was devoted to Miss Newton (classics). Because of her I took up Greek and passed “O” level Latin and Greek. This was in the interests of becoming an archaeologist – an ambition which she fostered. I shared Greek lessons with Bunty and had many good discussions, including one when I asked: “Why were the Greeks so interested in young boys?” There was an embarrassed silence and no answer.

One of the most feared teachers was Madame Surmelian – usually just “Madame”. She was actually Irish, had married an Armenian in Paris, and had a daughter – Marguerite – and was widowed young. I think she took the live-in position at QM in order to send Marguerite to a catholic boarding school. Because she was a catholic, had been married and was rather exotic, other staff members were wary of her. Once she invited upper sixth girls to her room and gave them sherry! Quelle horreur! We were extremely scared of Madame and always tried to meet her expectations for French verbs, dictation and translation. After school I got to know her and Marguerite well and saw Madame as trying hard to keep up appearances.

In April 1958, Madame Surmelian bravely took a group of senior girls to Paris. In the Paris Eiffel Towermornings we had French lessons and then went  sight-seeing and soaking up the culture. The latter included a Dior fashion show – “The model girls were rather strange shapes.” It was the year of the “ligne trapeze” or “A line”. We sat on gold painted chairs and felt gauche. Madame agreed. She despaired of our wearing cardigans to the Opera. I had new suede shoes and it was agony coming home on the metro. The Opera show turned out to be a ballet, “Romeo and Juliet” and the Polovskian Dances. We saw “Le Misanthrope” at the Comedie Francais, “Mignonne” at the Opera Comique  (the poor downtrodden gypsy girl was a strapping soprano)  and I was honoured to see “Le Maitre de Santiago” alone with Madame.  Another highlight was a reception at the Hotel de Ville. There were 6000 there – other school parties?

Paris Pont Alexandre

Pont Alexandre

We were not excused church on Sunday, but afterwards went to the bird market and browsed the bouquinistes. We learned to appreciate French food and how to attack an archichoke – no one knew before. On the last night we had what my diary recorded as “an almighty binge in room 34, all rather tipsy”, certainly very innocent. It was a really good trip.

Caesar, the headmistress, lived up to her nickname in appearance and manner – tall, stately and white haired. One look from her put anyone in their place, including the staff. Once she came in in the middle of the Hokey Pokey at a “senior dance’ and we were all sent to bed – we must have been dancing in an unseemly manner.

I often got “rows” from Caesar and, to my shame I even got a return for Caesar’s Div (Divinity[1]). A “return” was a detention for either bad work or bad behaviour. It was probably the latter. Caesar and I had a significant feature in common. We were both Miss J. Brown (she was Joyce). This meant that sometimes she got my mail and I had the discomfiture of going to retrieve it from her office, wondering what embarrassing correspondence she had seen.


1956 Report

The opposite of returns were red stars, which marked individual achievement and counted towards the glory of your house (just like Hogwarts). “Mark reading” took place at weekly assembly. I usually got a red star, which made a return even more ignominious. I did well in exams. In summer 1954 I got distinctions in arithmetic, geography, English literature, English language, geometry and history; credits in Latin, Caesar’s Divinity, Mingay’s Divinity (yes, two sorts of religious instruction), Algebra and French. In the exams in 1955 I gained distinctions in everything.


These achievements often translated into prizes at Speech Day, culminating in a haul of Sallit prizefour in 1958, for lower 6th form work, the Sallit prize for the best general certificate, Meneer prize for languages and a special prize for geography. But I must not get too swollen headed. I can remember failing in the Wild Flower Competition. So-called, actually it was compulsory to enter. Throughout the summer the biology teacher, Miss Ball, would put out test tubes in the corridor with specimens of wildflowers. We were supposed to learn the names so we could identify them in the “competition”. I failed and had to do it again. To this day names keep coming back to me, like bird’s foot trefoil and meadowsweet. We usually made fun of Miss Ball, who was rather vague, and if we didn’t know what something was, we put “probably wild carrot”.

[1] Religious study.

Everyday life at QM  Part 1 –  Health and Safety

Scarborough House 1954

Scarborough House early 1950s, Miss Bowyer in centre

House staff made the rules. In Scarborough it was Miss Bowyer, in Hall Miss Bridges (Breezy) and the matron Miss Berry. The latter was very deaf, so it was a great embarrassment to have to ask her if you could go on “short walks”. This meant that you had your period and were excused games. But, having to speak loudly meant that everyone knew.

by temple in park

Me by the temple, aged about 13

Miss Berry looked after our health. Mine was not bad apart from regular sore throats, perhaps the result of never having my tonsils out. I remember trying hard not to cough in chapel – this was considered quite unnecessary – and being sent to the “san’[1] to have my throat painted with iodine – a common remedy at the time. This was literally done with a brush to the back of the throat. My gag reflex has always been touchy, so it was a great ordeal. There would be flu epidemics most winters affecting both girls and staff. Once so many people were ill that the survivors were grouped into fewer bedrooms.

I had a few accidents. I once fell into a rose bush I was sent to the san to get the thorns out. I sprained my ankle and couldn’t do gym for a while – Hurray.  Other health-related items from my diaries –

  • Feeling bad with periods and determined to have children just to “vindicate” all these years of it.
  • In York to dentist to have abscess removed; later lost the tooth and got a new one. For a while I had had a gap and thought I should be wearing a veil.
  • Fell on my head doing a handstand in gym and had an “everlasting” headache.
  • I had my temperature taken but I didn’t have one. Feeling stuffy and queer but unable to fabricate a temperature. Miss Berry’s policy was that you got no attention unless you had a temperature!

Hall’s rooms surrounded the landing above the Red Stairs. Only staff, upper sixth girls


QM from playing fields, School house was in the top mansard level

and visitors were allowed to use the stairs; except once the roof leaked and several of us were dragooned to mop up. Usually, we went up and down the stone back stairs which the servants would have used. I don’t remember us having fire drills, but School House, on the floor, above had an escape slide. This was a tube of canvas attached to a window. In the case of fire, people could slide down to safety. Among the instructions was “Put on your warm knickers”. We could not understand this. Knickers would be superfluous with pyjama trousers. It was only later that we realised that the instruction dated back to when all girls would have worn nighties. Imagine girls emerging with their nighties up over their heads and no knickers!


Fifth formers were not allowed to go into York. However, I was friendly with Jane “Bunty” Sutherland who was a year above me. She could go into York at the weekend on the bus, visit the library and have tea in Betty’s. I persuaded her to get Bram Stoker’s “Dracula’ out of the library for me. While in town she met Miss Bridges who offered to take the books back in her car. Bunty was questioned about “Dracula” back at QM and she admitted it was for me. I was hauled up and given a lecture on “wicked books” and “sinister implications”.

“Judith, I know you are a sensible girl and this book will not affect you. But there are younger girls who would be frightened by it. You may read it, but on no account let anyone else see it.”

Of course, I could not wait to read it, but it was “not as bloody as I had expected”. Then, of course, I read it aloud in the bedroom after lights out. I think that Biddy, then my room-mate, remembers this with trepidation to this day.

QM gave me plenty of time for reading and study. Each year I recorded all the books I read, which included classics, Rider Haggard and Tolkein . During that time “The Lord of the Rings” came out in three instalments. I loved it but was bored by “Das Kapital”.

[1] Short for sanatorium.

My first solo journey – travel to Bahrain 1954

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Arrival in Bahrain

Once I was at boarding school I only saw my parents once a year,  in the long summer holiday, when either I went to visit them or they came back to the UK on leave.

Just after my 13th birthday, I took my first long unaccompanied journey. Mum and Dad and Gillian were in Manama, capital city of Bahrain, and I was joining them for the long summer holidays. This involved taking the train to London, then the tube to “the Walkers” (probably colleagues of Dad), where I stayed the night.  The following day I took the bus to the airport and flew with BOAC via Düsseldorf, Rome, Beirut, Baghdad and Kuwait. There were plenty of stops in those days. I was supervised by an air hostess, which I found irksome.

flat in bahrain

Our flat- ground floor – in Manama

bahrain beach

Beach on the Persian Gulf

Life for expatriates in Bahrain revolved around the Jufair and Gymkhana Clubs where there was swimming and an outdoor cinema – with rats running along the wires. Sometimes we swam in the sea which was very hot and salty, but so clear that it was hard to tell when you actually were in it, the air was so humid. Gillian, then aged 6, was keen to show me how she could swim and dive – feet first. There was not a lot to see around the small island but we visited the Portuguese Fort, with tunnels and secret rooms. This fostered my fantasy life as did the acquisition of an Arab head-dress and robe, which I still have and was photographed in.

bahrain dressupGillian went to a convent school in Manama. I tried to teach her but thought she was rather backward. Being so much younger, I think she hero-worshipped me and was upset when I left. In the photos of us at the beach she is still wearing a hair ribbon. I was thankfully free of this by then, but I still wore white socks.

The Muslim Shia Muharram festival happened while I was in Bahrain and everyone expected trouble. Muharram is the time of mourning for the death of Ali, grandson of Muhammad, at the Battle of Kerbala. We watched, from the roof, the procession of men flailing themselves with chains and drawing blood. After a while I began to feel dizzy and went down to our apartment, but on the way I totally lost my sight. Mum looked down and saw me feeling my way around the garden.  I was suffering from sun stroke and had to be put to bed with ice on my head. Apparently this is not an unusual symptom. My sight came back after a while, but it must have been frightening for everyone. (The same thing happened again in India.)

Family in Bahrain

I had a brush with history on the return journey. After leaving Bahrain and calling at Kuwait, we picked up King Feisal of Iraq in Basra. He would have been about 16 at the time, having acceded to the throne at the age of three. He later died in a revolution in

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Leaving Bahrain

1958. I remember a serious looking young man in a dark suit walking down the aisle on the plane. The look on my face in the departure photos showed how keen I was to return to school. When I got back to York I went to the pictures with Grandma Brown to “take my mind off things and it worked”. In those days she frequently went to sleep in the cinema and we saw the film around more than once (in those days there were continuous performances, which provoked the saying “this is where I came in.”).