Forever In Blue Jeans
Vatican Two re-calibrated the Roman Catholic demographic worldwide; but at the time, I was unaware of that. I was simply very grateful that Sunday Mass, our weekly obligation, had become somewhat more user-friendly: no longer was I subjected to what felt like hours of incantation in some strange language; and the priest was made to turn round and face his congregation, while talking to them in their native language. Along with that, services that occurred at peak times of the Religious year, like Easter, became slightly more bearable.
I must have been three the first time that I attended the Good Friday Mass; and mostly what I remember is that I had to have my head covered (black lace mantillas were what we had to wear) that I banged my lip painfully when I was venerating the cross (kissing the feet of a large, cold crucifix held in place by stern looking altar boys) and that the service went on for hours. I think I really do mean three hours, although I can't swear to it...it's a long time ago, and lost in a cloud of incense; which I like a lot by the way. That, to me, was the compensating factor for all the sitting, standing, kneeling, gabbling, trying not to fall asleep with utter boredom...that wonderful, rich, potent smell of something exotic.
Good Friday was also a fasting day; and in the '60s, before Vatican Two, every Friday was a 'no meat' day. I recall that on those days we ate perfectly square pieces of cod, packed into sealed plastic bags by Bird's Eye, ready to be brought to some kind of life in boiling water. I really hated those perfectly square pieces of cod; and something about their slithery, slimy texture reminded me of plastic floor tiles. Not that I've ever tried eating one of those; but my guess is they may be related.
Our mother, though chaotic in most household ways, was very particular about fasting days, and very strict about not eating anything for one hour before communion. Even though she was late for most things, she never got that rules of the church wrong. Looking back, it all seems rather at odds with the rest of our upbringing, which was certainly unconventional, and probably rather bohemian. And almost always late.
How the changes in Mother Church were reflected in our school life, became clear almost immediately after Vatican Two: not just the sudden, and to us, shocking, alteration in dress code by our
nun-teachers; but also the very unexpected liberalisation of how our religious teaching was directed: confession was held in the Headmistress's office in the full light of day, no longer in a darkened box with a grille dividing Us from Him. To be honest, I found the Headmistress's office much more alarming than the darkened box: for a start, actually having to face a person and discuss with them directly what your misdemeanours had been, seemed much more squirm-inducing than the relative anonymity of the darkened box. I didn't like full-frontal one bit. And frankly, I'm not sure that Father Wetz did either, because he left the church soon after that, got married and had a lot of children.
I don't know if Vatican Two was a catalyst for a dramatic worldwide rise in the abandonment of Religious life, particularly nuns; but my guess is that it wouldn't have helped: for a start, giving more or less wholesale freedom to a group of people, most of whom had hitherto only known an adult life behind convent walls, must have been like giving a daily free bar to a group of teenagers. Total mental and emotional anarchy. And some rather bad outcomes.
Several of our nuns at Our Lady Of Sion Convent School were clearly overwhelmed by discovering a whole new world; and without any kind of phased freedom (if there is such a thing) to suddenly become a free range nun must have been ridiculously intoxicating. A few left soon after the Big Change; and those that were left seemed suddenly rather less serene. I was troubled by the fact that nuns no longer seemed different to other adult women...and I didn't know how to categorise them anymore. Evidence that they went to hairdressers, wore stockings, had some kind of dress sense, all pointed to an uncomfortable contiguity in human condition, which I didn't want to know about.
About this time, I remember Cardinal Vaughan paying a visit to our school. We were all primed to attend chapel in our best school uniform, shoes polished, hair brushed. The Cardinal arrived in his radiant ceremonial garb - some very garish clobber made of brocade, with a matching biretta. He certainly did look very splendid; but it is a mark of exactly how far over our heads this visit went, that as he swept past us on the staircase, one of the younger children said in a piercingly loud voice: 'Is that the Queen?', to which her small neighbour replied 'No - hasn't got enough hair'.
Much more excitingly - to me anyway - was the change from bread only Holy Communion to bread and wine.
Because this was such a new thing to the school, my form teacher Sister Gladys decided that she should give us a bit of inset on the new practice. She asked the class who would like to try the wine, and as I was used to having a little wine with meals at home, I was one of the six children whose hand shot up instantly. Sister Gladys took this promising little group of bibulous bambini down to the cloakroom, armed with a bottle of communion wine and a teacup. Only it wasn't a small teacup. It was a very large one; and because, presumably, she wasn't well versed in the serving of alcohol, Sister G poured a generous cup for each of us in turn. To the brim.
I don't remember (unsurprisingly) much of the outcome from this event; but these days I have about as much love for communion wine as I do for Cyprus sherry, and I'm guessing that there may be a connection. I also don't remember anything being said by any parents about six giggling, shrieksome girls being released into the world later...but perhaps we had all come into land by then.
Whatever the inner turbulence of the Roman Catholic church was, I loved that school: I loved the building, the location, the long bus journey from Barnes to Notting Hill Gate, and my friends; and it all felt very safe and happy. From the age of eight I was allowed to travel from home to school and back on my own. No one ever thought twice about it as any kind of safety risk; and in fairness, there wouldn't have been much cause to either. Sometimes my father travelled on the bus with me, but mostly I was alone.
As the younger child, I had four years at Our Lady of Sion, while my sister Catriona only had two, after which she moved on to Big School in Hammersmith - a sudden and slightly disconcerting alteration in the pattern of our lives, with different journeys, different uniforms and a completely different ethos: Godolphin and Latymer was a non-denominational school, and something like six times the size of Our Lady of Sion.
By the time I followed Catriona to Godolphin, the difference seemed really extreme: used to being a big fish in a very small pond, and accustomed to a gentle and kindly environment, it came as a terrible shock to be emptied into what seemed like a very rough and noisy ambience. That is clearly much more of a reflection on my previous school than on Godolphin; because although there were six hundred and fifty girls in the school as opposed to the one hundred and twenty I was used to, it was by no stretch of the imagination a rough school. Indeed, there were quite strict rules about only walking in corridors, standing up when teachers came into rooms, behaving with respect towards teachers; yet the social mix was much broader, and the levels of confidence seemed remarkably, and intimidatingly high to me.
This was 1972; and the first time that I had been aware of such a thing as fashion. Or pop music. Or any kind of populism really. I had led such a sheltered life, albeit in a rather eccentric sort of background. But then as it turned out, Godolphin had a lot of girls from unusual/eccentric backgrounds: in my year alone, there was the daughter of a cabinet minister, several daughters of famous actors; and of less famous ones too. Since we didn't have a television at home, I really couldn't tell the difference...except through the subtle behaviours of the daughters of 'successful' ones, that tended to include a kind of natural confidence that I couldn't have dreamed of. And expensive addresses in very posh parts of West London. There were also some girls from very tough backgrounds, who had been selected through the interview system. I well remember my mother telling me that a girl in my year had a mother who was on the game. I have no idea how she knew this, although I think it may have come up at a parents' evening; but interestingly, I still have no idea who that girl was.
The school allowed sixth form girls to wear home clothes, so the fashion of the day seemed to be reflected in tight jeans, baggy Biba T-shirts, and lots of Laura Ashley. Gosh...the days when Laura Ashley was the height of coolth seem very remote now; but the eponymous designer was more rough and raw in image then; or at least more
DH Lawrence than cutesie. I can still remember it being my ambition to own a Laura Ashley pinafore dress; and it took me until the sixth form to manage it. Along with my white clogs and Levi jeans.
Before that though, I reached a stage of desperately wanting to own some tight jeans like the other girls. So at about the age of fourteen, I went to Chelsea Girl in Kensington High Street to look.
Mooching about in the downstairs area, I found the jeans I aspired to, and took them into the changing room. The important point about jeans in those days was that they had to be 'crutch busters'. They had to cling to your body remorselessly; and they had to do so without the benefit of elastane or any of the currently available denim-relaxers. No...rigidity was the thing. And lying on the floor with a coat hanger squeezing your reluctant midriff into the unyielding garment was simply the only method.
I was doing pretty well on the floor of the Chelsea Girl changing room; but spying an assistant, I asked if he could help a bit. Willingly, he pushed a bit here, squeezed a bit there...and hey presto, I was in!
'Great!' I said; 'How much are they?'
'No idea' he replied. 'I don't work here'.