Chapter 1. Malvern.
I was adopted at the age of 8 weeks by Julie Clancy, who must have been a woman of remarkable courage. For the sad and obvious reason there were a large number of spare babies available towards the end of the war in 1943 and I was one of them. She was one of the last single women who were allowed to adopt, she was also 52 years old, and that wouldn’t have been allowed these days either.
Julie was the matron of a nursing home in Graham Road, Great Malvern. Before the advent of the NHS nursing homes were very different places from today, the main difference being that they were allowed to perform operations, tonsil and adenoid removals and the like. There was a fully equipped operating theatre attended by visiting surgeons. Patients also came to convalesce, as Malvern was always considered a healthy place to be, set as it is half way up the Malvern Hills. Does anyone convalesce any more? Or indeed remove adenoids? Julie prided herself on the quality of the food, and as a registered nursing home, rationing was not applied with anything like the severity found elsewhere.
We had a flat on the top floor, with the hills to the back and a slightly interrupted view over the Severn Valley To the front. I had a nanny till I went to school, I don’t think I liked her very much, a Welsh woman called Nora Bough, who went on to Higher Things when she became Nanny to the children of Lord and Lady Beauchamp of Madresfield Court, (famous for its association with Evelyn Waugh). Nanny Bough stayed on as housekeeper when the children grew up and was the ladies maid and confidante of Lady B, until she retired aged 80-something to a Grace and Favour almshouse in Malvern Link.
My preparatory school was Croftdown, an establishment that had been evacuated from North London for the duration of the war, and stayed. It was run with a kind of fierce cosiness by two unmarried sisters called Wortley. (There are a great many unmarried ladies of a certain age in my early life.) The children were encouraged to call the Misses Wortley, ”Auntie“, I think it was meant to inspire family feeling, it didn’t strike me as peculiar, or even embarrassing at the time. Auntie Wortles and Auntie Jan?? Oh dear, what were they thinking of? The other teachers got away with diminutives based on their surnames, the only one I remember was Milly for Miss Millward, a tall gaunt woman with iron grey plaits wrapped round her head and flat Clarkes sandals, Miss Millward would have been a far more appropriate means of address. She taught maths I think, certainly we were all very well taught the basics, times tables, mental arithmetic and so forth.
As an only child with a hard-working mother I presumably spent a lot of time on my own, I remember that visits were made to the school and conversations had to find out if anything was the matter with me, since I clearly had great difficulty making friends or interacting with other children. I suspect I was simply terrified of rejection and it seemed safer not to try. Like many somewhat lonely children there were a pair of imaginary friends, called, strangely enough, Monks and Bishy-bar. I didn’t know any monks, and certainly no bishops, nor wanted to, so what that was about I have no idea.
Julie decided after much discussion with friends that I should call her ‘Mardy’ supposedly a combination of Ma and Daddy, she didn’t realise that it was Yorkshire for whiny or grumpy, as in ”he/she’s a mardy little bugger“. But I didn’t find that out till much later, and no one in Malvern knew anything about the North so it didn’t matter.
I started riding lessons while still at the nursing home, and enjoyed them very much. The riding school was run by a hard-bitten ex-cavalry chap called Major Chandler, whose true metier was drilling tough young subalterns, he was wasted on slightly nervous small girls, and hopeless with them, really. We rode on Malvern Common, and the 1st time I was allowed off the leading rein, the little brute I was riding, recognising complete inexperience when he felt it dithering on his back, bolted up the hill as fast as his legs would carry him, finishing the performance with a couple of determined bucks. I sustained a fractured elbow. Traditional wisdom has it that you are put straight back on again, [once someone has managed to catch the pony that is] lest you ‘lose your nerve’. Well, you lose your nerve anyway, at least while the plaster is still on.. I have a memory of ringing the door-bell at the nursing home, and saying rather apologetically – ‘I seem to have done something to my arm’. I tried again a couple of months later on a less volatile mount, and all was well.
Soon after the National Health Service came in 1948 Julie decided to give up the lease she held on the nursing home. She was told that she could no longer run a private operating theatre and felt that nursing homes would become simply geriatric establishments if people could get free treatment for all their ills in hospitals. She was of course partly right, but maybe she would have been better off to have sat out the transition period and kept going, because with the move she lost the only proper income she was ever to have. She bought a large house in College Grove at the western edge of Great Malvern called Far End. I think I was about 8.
I’ve no idea how Julie managed to keep afloat financially, and I realise now that she didn’t, sinking very slowly into debt until in desperation she turned the top 2 floors into self-contained flats. She should have done this right from the start, of course, but that’s easy to say now. She didn’t want to worry me, so never talked about it, I wish she had. There were all sorts of schemes that were supposed to make the house self supporting. A sort of extra canteen for children from Croftown School and a holiday home for somewhat older children whose parents worked in the Far East and who were only able to fly out to visit their parents once a year during the long Summer Holidays, were two that I remember.
In 1955 I went to the Convent of the Sacred Heart in Tunbridge Wells. Julie had chosen this school with much care. She was a committed Catholic of the old school, (preferring the Mass in Latin, and hating the faux chumminess and the “bobbing up and down” that crept in later on) and felt that there was nowhere suitable in Malvern. The nicest of the holiday children, who must have been 17 or so at the time, attended this school, so visits were paid, I was accepted and off I went. I took the grammar school entrance exam, the “11+” and somehow scraped through which enabled me to achieve a small grant towards the boarding fees from Worcestershire County Council.
It wasn't easy to fit in to begin with. Know-it-alls with no talent for making friends are always going to have acceptance difficulties, so the 1st couple of years weren’t much fun. But it did get better. I was a good all-rounder, good at art, good enough at sports to make it into various teams, and anxious to please. I never did quite the ”holiness“ business, though I did try, eventually enjoying the brisk daily mass. Attendance wasn’t in theory compulsory, but it was certainly noticed if you never showed up.
Many things would seem hopelessly quaint, not to say embarrassing, nowadays. We still had to curtsey to the Headmistress and the Reverend Mother, though it seemed as normal as shaking hands at the time. It was more a maid’s bob than a full blown stage curtsey, and we got very good at perfecting the double version on the slippery polished floors, if two high ranking nuns were standing together. It’s been a surprisingly handy skill, I’ve passed on the knack to many an actress!