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Doing the Vatican Rag

After Catriona and I left our local convent school in Barnes, there was a real problem about where to send us: in the ‘60s it was obligatory for Roman Catholics to send their children to a Roman Catholic school; and after the closure of the local convent, there was nothing for us nearer than Notting Hill Gate,

Interestingly, our mother might have caved in and sacrificed her religious scruples for something nearer and with fewer logistical constraints; but our father, a non-catholic, felt very strongly that he had ‘signed on the dotted line’ for us to be brought up as Catholics; and he was determined to see it through.

I remember little about the decision to send us to the new school, but I do remember that the school uniform didn’t arrive in time for the start of term, so for the first week, we had to wear home clothes. To be in a new school was quite challenging enough; but to feel that you also stuck out like a sore thumb because your clothes were every shade of wrong, made matters considerably worse.

However, in most other ways, the move was extremely positive: this breed of nuns seemed altogether more user-friendly – much more smiley, much more friendly; and best of all, there were no scary books of the Seven Deadly Sins with lurid drawings.

Our Lady of Sion Preparatory School was in Chepstow Villas, now an incredibly trendy and expensive part of West London; but in those days, it was very much part of where the Jamaican diaspora had ended up, and was close to a slum in many parts of the area. Walking from the bus stop to the school, one passed many houses that were multiple-occupancy dwellings, vibrating with Reggae, and the roads were often strewn with rubbish and dog poo.

The convent, with its integral school, was a large redbrick building that straddled the corner of Chepstow Villas and Denbigh Road. There was also a teacher training college called Corpus Christi on the same campus, but I was never really clear where that began and ended.

One came into the school through a basement cloakroom sited on the Denbigh Road end of the building, went upstairs to one of the classrooms, and thereafter spent most of the day in a small area of what was actually an enormous place. Years later it was turned into an expensive apartment building, where Jacqueline du Pré ended her life.

The nuns must have lived on the upper floors of the building, but I was never too clear about where. In fact, I was never particularly clear that nuns, even nice ones, were human at all: I once asked my sister Catriona whether nuns were girls. She understood the question to mean – do you get girl-nuns; but what I had actually meant was ‘do nuns evolve from being children as other people do, or do they just come out in penguin form?’

The fact that she answered ‘no’, probably informed my view of the species permanently; and it certainly made me very concerned about what lurked under those black marquees masquerading as humans.

The year we started at Our Lady of Sion was 1968, so just after the Second Vatican Council had made some pretty swingeing changes to the way in which the Roman Catholic rites would be observed; but such changes took time to drip feed down to the level of schools, so for our first year there, we were still taught by the Penguin breed of nun. Most disconcerting for me was the fact that you couldn’t see if these creatures had hair…and the only skin you could see was their hands, and a small space of face between wimple and high collar. Indeed, so alarmingly alien did these creatures seem to me, that I became terrified of the ‘call of Our Lord’ that apparently descended on some unlucky girls. I remember asking my mother tearfully if there was some way Our Lord could be distracted by some other girl rather than fixing on me.

Sometime around then I also saw ‘The Sound of Music’ for the first time, which reinforced some interesting stereotypes about nuns …although I don’t recall any nuns I knew singing with operatic élan. More of a questionable, querulous bleat.

The first year in our new school was a revelation in lots of ways: with only sixty pupils in total, the classes had just eight children each. Classes were also doubled up, two year groups per room, in order to maximise space and minimise teacher requirement. Having been accelerated beyond our actual age groups in our previous school, it was deemed appropriate to put us back into our rightful age band in the new set-up. Within days of starting, it became apparent that things would have to change – the previous school had pushed us out of our natural age group by some margin. According to my mother, who used to tell this story un-self consciously on a regular basis, the headmistress of Our Lady of Sion asked to see her: ‘Your daughter is clearly too advanced for the class we have put her in, so we would like to put her up a year’. To which my mother replied ‘Yes, Catriona has always been advanced for her age’.

Sister Paul-Marie replied: ‘Oh! I was talking about Alison!’

Anyway, with a little negotiation it transpired that we were both reassigned to a year ahead of our age group, and after that, things settled well. No tiresome embroidery classes, no quasi-sadistic teachers and slightly (only slightly) better food. Above all, the headmistress agreed to teach me the piano, and I developed a real passion for playing under her guidance. Somewhere along the line, she started taking lessons with my father too, and I still laugh at the memory of him stopping off on the way home from the Royal Academy of Music to give her a piano lesson. And I bet he didn’t charge for it either…

Once our school uniform arrived, I was in heaven: in the old school, I had always worn my sister’s cast-offs; which I wouldn’t have minded, except that she had a habit of chewing her collars, so I always ended up looking like something out of a bad production of Oliver Twist. Weirdly enough when my son Alex started at his school some thirty years later, he had exactly the same habit of collar-chewing; and my daughter Millie took exactly the same dim view of his cast-offs as I had done.

One year into our life at Our Lady of Sion, Vatican Two took hold palpably: we had been in our world of not-quite-human-not-quite-penguins for so long, we no longer questioned their identities; nor their names, which were mostly masculine – Sister Paul-Marie, Sister Charles, Sister Anthony…and even my form teacher, Sister Placida, seemed genderless. So it was with something close to shock that we returned from the summer holiday in September 1969, to find that nuns as a breed had been vanquished from our school: greeting me was an old lady with a grey perm, a knee length skirt and most surprising of all, a baptismal name. Sister Placida the Penguin had morphed into Sister Gladys.

It didn’t stop there: Sister Paul-Marie had sprung out of her habit into white-haired bouffancy; and Sister Maria, my new form teahcer…well…she had turned into a crazy lady in a red skirt, wielding a guitar and looking like the next Eurovision entry to follow Dana.

People underestimate the shock this caused children at the time: we knew nothing about the politics of popery; but we knew what we were accustomed to. Suddenly, it was all freedom and speaking out. Confession was no longer something you did in a dark box, breathing your sins out through a wire grid. No, now you had to sit in the headmistress’s office and have a head-to-head with Father Wetz, our priest, getting down and dirty (no, not in that way…) with him about ‘being nicer’.

What was also interesting about that year, is that it was when the Troubles in Northern Ireland began; and although this aspect of the issue is not something generally discussed, we were subject to some secular problems – bomb scares were common at the school, and the feeling that Roman Catholics were an unpopular sector in society became clear. Not that we knew that our rather frequent trips out into the freezing playground, standing around and waiting for the all-clear, were to do with bomb scares rather than fire practices; but my mother filled in that gap for me years later.

We also became subject to a much worse form of persecution: that of 1960s Roman Catholic music. Away with traditional hymns, and in with the guitars, the tuneless warbling and ‘Go Tell It On the Mountain’ sung to Sister Maria on her ukulele. I still remember a terrible Friday, when I had felt very sick all day. The last lesson of the day was Sister Maria teaching us more verses of ‘Go Blah Blah…’ and I battled, unsuccessfully as it transpired, to hold back the tide of nausea….

The times when our father collected us from school, were always maverick. On the way back to the bus stop, we would pass The Kentucky Pancake House, now longer extant; and he would invariably take us in there for pancakes. On one occasion, he collected us and explained that he would have to bring us to the Royal Academy of Music, because he had an imminent rehearsal there. I’m not sure what the breakdown in household control was, or maybe it was our mother having a bout of militancy on the lines of ‘these are your children too…’ but clearly neither our mother nor our nanny was around; so our father had been dispatched to collect us, with a bag of puzzles and games under one arm.

I think it is some kind of tribute to the unconventional nature of our upbringing that neither Catriona nor I made any demur: daddy says we’re going to the Academy, so that’s what we’re doing.

With two little girls clad in cherry red blazers and matching berets clinging to either hand, and the bag of games and puzzles under one armpit, our father sashayed across West London, to Marylebone.

Just as we reached the approach to the RAM, a little past Madame Tussaud’s, a distinguished looking, grey-haired man stopped in front of us: ‘Good evening Alex! And how are you?’

Our father coughed slightly, and said ‘Oh good evening Tony – yes, we have a family crisis, so I’m bringing the children in with me.’

I had no idea what a ‘family crisis’ was, and I still don’t know which particular one this was either…but I do know that the distinguished man was Sir Anthony Lewis, then Principal of the Academy. He seemed unabashed, and we all proceeded on our way, which turned out to be into a room on the second floor, where our father was about to have a rehearsal with the violinist Jean Harvey.

I learned a lot about the underside of a grand piano that day from our station under the Steinway; and something of the Spring Sonata has also rubbed off on me…but most of all what I recall is the elegance of Jean Harvey’s slender ankles, and her ridiculously vertiginous stiletto heels.

Poor Sir Anthony had another brush with our family chaos some months later, when he stopped on the steps of the Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music to pass a few words with my father after a Board meeting.

Apparently my father reached into his briefcase to bring out some piece of paper…only what came out in his hand, was a pair of my grey, flannel convent knickers.

Clearly, nothing could be said.

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