My Early Childhood

by David Gregorie

The world began in 1936 — or so it seems to me, more than 60 years later. It’s true that I have memories from before then, but they are more like dreams, fragmented and incoherent.

On the first day of the school year in 1936 Mum took Donald Adams and me to school. Don lived at the top of Wakeman Street, on the other side of Tylee’s Hill, and Mum met Mrs Adams and Don by the stile over our boundary fence and took us both to be enrolled together.

We were both well over the age when we should have started school but the government, in one of its more inspired fits of lunacy, had cancelled all new school enrolments for 1935 in order to reduce government spending.

The inevitable result, of course, which conservative politicians could not possibly be expected to foresee, was that a population bulge of much larger classes surged through the schools for the next nine years.

All the infant classes were taught in one double classroom by Miss McKitrick. I thought she was wonderful. I’d had a fairly isolated early childhood and there were a lot of new names to remember — Noeline Taylor, who was clever, Audrey Stokes, who ate chalk, Wallace Richards, who wore shirts his mother made from flour bags, Bobby Macrae, who was small like me, Bertha Gunn, who was fat, Ian Foley, who had all his hair shorn off because he had nits, Ngara Mackley, who was pretty and wore glasses, ’Nessa and Nerida Murch, who were twins…

We chanted tables while Miss McKitrick played the piano, "Seven and FIVE are twelve, seven and six are thirteen, seven and seven are FOURteen…" We struggled through Whitcombes Progressive Readers, or at least I did. I was so used to having stories read aloud to me by Dad that I resisted the idea of learning to read for myself. I was shut in the cupboard for misbehaving.

We learned to write on individual blackboards, child height, spaced around the walls. If we were good we were allowed to draw on our blackboards with coloured chalk. The girls drew houses. They had one door with a window on either side, a chimney with a twist of smoke coming from it and a garden path with colourful flowers. A yellow sun shone from under a blue sky

The boys drew aeroplanes — drawing what they knew to be there rather than what they would actually see. They drew the fuselage of the plane as seen from the side and then tacked the wings on top and bottom as seen from underneath. We had great arguments about it.

We had morning talks. One day Dad gave me some seed-heads of tall fescue grass to take to school. My morning talk, carefully rehearsed, went like this, "Here-I-have-some-tall-fesky. Yes-ter-day-I-found-some-tall-er-than-my-self." I was sent into the Headmaster’s class to repeat my talk to him and I could not understand why all the big boys and girls found it so amusing.

While I was in the Primers I unintentionally provided an object lesson in the unreliability of child witnesses. I had a mild infection in my eyes — probably conjunctivitis. Mum had bathed them in a solution of boracic acid, without telling me what it was, and sent me off to school. Miss McKitrick noticed the dried mucus around my eyes and suggested that I ask my mother to bathe my eyes in a solution of boracic acid.

I couldn’t remember exactly what Miss McKitrick said, but I knew that Mum made her own soap in the copper from a boiled-up mixture of mutton fat and caustic soda. I told Mum that the teacher said she had to bathe my eyes in caustic soda. Mum laughed a little and explained my mistake, but I tearfully insisted that what I thought the teacher had said must be right.

Mum had to ring Miss McKitrick and ask her to explain to me that I’d misunderstood. My blood still runs cold at the thought of what could have happened. I have since met at least one parent silly enough to do what their child suggested and several who would have believed what their child said without question and refused to accept the teacher’s explanation.

At the end of the year there was a debate over whether I should spend a second year in the Primers or go straight into Standard 1 because of my age. Mum opted for another year in the Primers, and 1937 was more or less a repeat of the previous year.

I spent a great deal of time with Dad when I was very young, probably before I started school as well as afterwards. I asked questions interminably, "Why do plants grow, how do aeroplanes stay up, why is the sky blue, what’s on top of the sky, why can’t we see God up there, why isn’t Uncle Eric married, why…why…why…"

Dad answered me very patiently. He showed me how to sow seeds, how to plant the little trees and how to lift them carefully from the ground and stack them in the barrow ready for packing.

He told me the names of all the trees he planted, the wild flowers that grew around, the birds we saw and heard. He taught me to love the birds, to recognise them by sight and by their voices. He taught me about the stars and the planets and encouraged me to be curious about the world around me — an intense interest which has stayed with me all my life.

He taught me words and how to use them and insisted that I speak correctly — this last set me apart from my school-fellows for the rest of my childhood and I came to see it as a mixed blessing. I learned to speak English at home and Gutter Kiwi at school, so as not to get thumped.

Dad used to sing to me sometimes. I thought he had a very fine voice. My favourite song was the lugubrious Irish ballad, "Where the mountains of Mourne sweep down to the seeeee…"

After tea, if I was good, Dad would read to me from the Pooh books, Beatrix Potter, Alice or "The Wind in the Willows".

But he was very strict. And he had a frightening temper. I was a picky eater as a child — I didn’t like fat or gristle on my meat; I couldn’t stomach boiled eggs with runny whites; I resisted eating anything unfamiliar. And, if I didn’t eat what was put in front of me, I got the stick. I can remember vividly one lunch time, gagging over some gristle on the cold meat that was put before me while Dad whacked at my legs under the table. Mum seized the stick and had quite a struggle to take it from him. Dad could look really ugly at times like that.

We were really poor in those days. In 1936 Dad’s gross income was only £95 — pocket money for a college boy today. Had we not grown all our own vegetables and most of our fruit, kept our own hens and got most of our meat from Gorge End, we would not have survived. Despite this, we ate well and my clothes were always neat and tidy. You would not have thought, looking at a school photograph, that we were so far down the economic scale.

On March 11, 1937, my little sister was born — Ann Catherine. She was named Ann after our great-grandmother, Mary Ann Dinwiddie, and Catherine after Great Aunt Kate, and, for good measure, Dad’s sister Mary Catherine Kinnell, our great-great-grandmother Catherine McKinnon and grandad’s sister Catherine Windsor Lewis. A sort of grand slam in the naming stakes.

The old tin bath that had been used for me when I was a baby was dragged out of storage and put to good use. I can remember watching Ann having her first bath in the kitchen after Dad had brought in a bucket of hot water from the wash house. Mum added cold water from the sink tap and carefully tested the temperature with her elbow.

About this time Dad had a malevolent device known as a "chip heater" installed in the bathroom, taking up what little space there was between the bath and the end wall. This misbegotten contrivance was dirty, smoky, temperamental, difficult to light and liable to go out if you took your eye off it for a second. It did, however, provide scalding hot water for the bath, ending for ever the bucket-procession from the wash house.

At first, our new baby slept in Mum’s and Dad’s bedroom, as Mum breast-fed her for six months. Then, for a while, Ann’s cot was shifted into my bedroom. I can’t remember whether it was that year or the following year that Mum and Dad decided on a second addition to the house.

A new bedroom for Mum and Dad was built on the end of their old room with a window to the north, overlooking the garden, and a glass door onto the extended front porch. Ann was moved into their old bedroom which had a new window onto the porch.

In 1938 I went into Standard One, Miss McCardle’s class. She was a figure of fun in our household because of the way she spoke. "Y’ll afta gid’new book neow, woancha Dye-vud," she said to me once, and I went home and gleefully mimicked her to the entertainment of Mum and Dad. Not a good example to set the children!

That was the year of the great election — the first Labour Government was bidding for a second term of office. Long lines of children tramped around the school grounds chanting, "Boo National", or "Boo Labour", according to the way their parents planned to vote.

At the time, it was inconceivable to me that anyone could possibly vote Labour, or be a Catholic or even a Presbyterian, for that matter. All decent right-thinking people were Anglican, voted National, drove a British car, called England "Home" and used table napkins.

I was horrified when I saw a photo of Michael Joseph Savage, the Labour Prime Minister, in the Headmaster’s kitchen, astounded when I heard Aunty Harlah (Mrs Ernest Miller) tell Mum how wonderful it was that Labour had been re-elected.

I discovered "lollies", "chews" and "chuddy gum" — terms utterly forbidden by my parents. I had been allowed the occasional piece of barley sugar as a treat when I was little but any other sweets were rarely seen. Other children might swap chewing gum from mouth to mouth or take turns at sucking an aniseed ball — not me. Only common children did things like that.

All I can remember about Standard 2 was the teacher. Dreadful woman. Once, when she lost her temper and screamed at us for misbehaving, Scotty Robson, the school caretaker, ran his broom handle rapidly down the weather boarding outside, making a fearful racket. Miss Houston shut up immediately. We hugged ourselves with glee. Scotty Robson shot up in my estimation.

But 1939 was important for other reasons. War was declared.