Being at school in London during the '70s had something of an iconic feel to it. Retrospectively that is; at the time, it was just 'school', and I had no idea of the extraordinary things that were happening all round me. Right under my nose. We experienced all the vicissitudes of the first ever boy bands - The Osmonds, The Bay City Rollers, David Cassidy; then Punk Rock exploded into vivid life during that time - The Sex Pistols - Ian Dury - and Blondie, Kate Bush, Elvis Costello...the songs of those years can still provoke a memory back to life out of nowhere. I remember my father coming home one evening and describing with ill-disguised horror, how his journey had been delayed by hordes of hysterical, wailing adolescent girls throwing themselves on the ground all over Hammersmith, screaming 'Rollers, we love you!' as he tried to pick his way over their tartan-clad bodies through the subways.
Progressing from Junior School, or in my case, Prep School, to a Secondary School, is always a gear change worthy of note for any child; but for me, the alteration was extremely dislocating: I had been at such a tiny school before, and suddenly arriving in this much bigger place, with many much bigger people in it, was very intimidating.
For a start, the uniform was something of a shock: utilitarian probably describes it best - a grey skirt cut so narrow that it split pretty much the first time I took a full stride in it. The material was so poor in quality that it developed a shine in a matter of weeks after I first sat down in it on a school chair. Turquoise blouses made of hideous polyester fabric, and a grey jumper that made sparks when you pulled it off over your head too fast. So probably not that natural a fabric either...
Being a child of very anxious propensity, I found the whole business of moving into a new environment very stressful. Most of the girls in my class were from state primaries, and seemed somehow tougher, more worldly than I felt. Some were already talking about smoking as a thing they aspired to, or had even tried; and the 'cool' bar seemed to be set pretty high.
I was one of the two smallest girls in the whole of the Upper Third year group too - I'm still very close friends with the other one some forty five years later - and to be surrounded by people who appeared to tower over me was another complicating factor to my inception into this new world. I felt as though all the others had graduated to this new level by virtue of size as much as anything; and my tinyness, my utterly un-cool appearance and lack of street cred added to my lack of confidence considerably. Add to this the fact that I no longer felt that I stood out as a 'clever girl'...because just about everyone there was very clever...and you can imagine just how much of a culture shock the whole thing was.
Apart from the obvious comparators in my own year group, there was a whole host of terrifyingly beautiful, tall, slender girls in the sixth form, who all seemed to have six-foot long legs shaped like attenuated tongs, wild hair and kohl-streaked eyes. Along with Biba T-shirts and an aroma of patchouli. Because of course these were the days of Biba, of the post-hippy fashion idiom and a 'look' that was part Twiggy, part Farah Fawcett-Majors, and part home-grown, slighty slutty West London messiness in dingy colours.
I vividly remember the first time I encountered what I now recognise as Anorexia Nervosa: a girl with legs slightly narrower than a pipe cleaner and eyes the size of soup plates, was wandering past me in the corridor. She seemed oddly lifeless and apathetic. Pale, ghostly almost; and my thought was that she must have been ill in some way...which of course was accurate; but not in the way I imagined. It puzzled me; but it wasn't until about five years later that this particular image became rather frighteningly frequent and familiar. And by that stage I had become conversant with the weird food-phobias of my peer group. Those terrifying moments of sitting next to someone chasing half a tomato round a plate, who was complaining about how 'full' they felt.
I suppose the gearing up of academic pressure was also something that became a very new component part of my world: I had excelled effortlessly at Primary level, but this was different, and I found the change hard. I was also used to having only one or two teachers in my week; but now we had a different teacher for every subject, bringing with it the complication of whether or not you liked them...or they liked you.
In those days it was pretty much open house on teachers expressing implicitly, or explicitly, whether or not they 'liked' you; and although I'm sure there were Best Practice guidelines in place, there was a certain looseness in how teaching relationships were expressed. No neutrality.
That was all very well when you were in credit with a teacher; but much less acceptable if you were not one of the ones who resided comfortably in a 'favourites' zone. And it certainly seemed as though a 'favourites zone' did exist. Not that I didn't admire, or even like, some of the teachers that we had; but they were an alien species to me, after my experiences with the nun's Penguin Parade in my convent life: for them, being 'good' was pretty much all that was required; but with this new breed of teacher, there was just the slightest suggestion that unless you were very different, they weren't interested...because of course, they had seen it all before.
My most potent memories of the teaching I had at this stage were mostly rooted in the English department: Mrs Driver, an astringent woman, with an acerbic tongue, but also a capacity to inspire me to write (she was the first person who made me think I actually might be able to) whose unlovely task was to drag the Upper Third through Men and Gods, the standard text for the year. Boring beyond belief...just a kind of cooked-up Greek mythology thing; but she used it to get us thinking about myths and legends; and it worked. I remember nothing about the book all these decades later, but I remember Mrs Driver alright.
Then there was a biology teacher, Mrs Bearman, who wore extraordinary and exotic clothes, involving suede tassels and leather panels. Over the knee boots and crazy jewellery I recall as well - clunky necklaces and huge earrings...it's a wonder she didn't catch fire in the bunsen burners really. Science was never my strong point; but I did pick up a few tips about how to accessorise. Or rather, since I was still very firmly stuck in my tight-grey-skirt-and-polyester-jumper phase, the tips lodged my my mind for future reference. I also recall that Mrs Bearman wore a perfume that captured my olfactory sense vividly: some time later I identified it as L'Air du Temps, and have been a big fan ever since. Only I prefer it now that it's not mixed with formaldehyde, as it was my 1970s memory from the biology lab.
The subtle side-effect from the feeling of being slightly alienated from my school surroundings was that I became much more involved in my musical aspirations: the music department at the school was absolutely terrible; but because I had lessons outside school, and because, let's face it, I had the best music department in the world in my own home.
In fact, that aspect of my life had only just dawned on me: after all, my 'normal' up to that point was brilliant musicians in the house from dawn till dusk, playing, having lessons, being accompanied, forming part of a chamber group...there was just a permanent background soundtrack of music. But weirdly, I really only started to value that, rather than just loving it, when the learning environment I found myself in showed itself to be so woefully short on good music.
I'm not the first professional musician to have been failed in an audition for a school choir at a tender age; but it's interesting, and truly appalling, to think that both my sister Catriona and I were failed at audition for the Junior Choir of Godolphin; and for me, the reason was simple: we were put in groups of three to sing the chosen hymn, which was 'All Things Bright and Beautiful'...because 'everyone knows that don't they?' Only this 'everyone' didn't know it, because I'd been to a Roman Catholic school, where that hymn had never been taught.
I'm sure I sang like a horse; and I'm sure the music teacher was right, on that basis, to fail my audition, but it does rather beg the question, what exactly where they trying to audition?
Anyway, undeterred - or perhaps bruised but determined - I externalised all my musical thinking to outside the school; and to be frank, it was no sacrifice really - the school choirs were fed a diet of seventies pop songs, and whilst we were living in one of the finest eras of pop music, singing poorly arranged, poorly conducted versions of Simon and Garfunkel wasn't really the apogee of my world. The only time when I nursed secret yearnings to be in that choir was when Christmas approached, and the seasonal offerings of 'This is the Truth Sent from Above' wafted down the corridor from the very uninspiring '60s music block.
It's ok - the story ends well, in that I requested another audition later that year (never did know my place...) and the music teacher declared that I had a good voice, and that it was amazing that I hadn't put myself forward before. Well go figure...
I suppose that I do have to credit the school, grudgingly, for then inspiring some interest in choral music thereafter; but really, I always felt rather inhibited about my singing after that, and made sure I sang more quietly than my neighbours so that I didn't run the risk of being found wanting in the pitch department. It's been a lifelong lesson.
Meanwhile, I was practising on my quarter size cello (yes, I really was tiny) and becoming intrigued by what people were coming to our house to learn: my father's music room was upstairs, so there was no way of avoiding what went on up there. If it was going well in a lesson, the there would be swathes of music, punctuated by the odd bellow or foot-stamp. The ceiling light in the kitchen would shake and judder in sympathy with the music and the foot-stamping...and God help us if it was a Rachmaninov concerto, with my father providing the mother of all orchestras on his second piano. That may be why the ceiling had cracks in it...
Anyway, as time went on, I became as interested in the people coming for their piano lessons as the music they played: admittedly, an interest in good-looking young men might have played a part in this; but actually, one of the benefits of being immersed in a household where the door was always open, and people came and went with enduring regularity, was that I became very open socially, and very interested in the conversations that sprang up over a cup of tea or coffee that I had made for a student who was waiting while my father ran wildly late.
Some of my best friends now come from that era; and despite what were big age differences then, we found common ground somehow. I think the kitchen of 32 Gerard Road was probably some kind of counselling forum in a disguised way...lots of slightly lost people finding their way there from all kinds of disparate backgrounds, discovering some kind of freedom of expression, not just musically, but also in the endless conversation over drinks and food.
Somehow, growing up in a house that never belonged solely to its inhabitants has imbued me with a feeling that 'home' is something to be shared. I have continued that tradition forward into my own home, and only recently realised that actually, this is a pretty unusual way of living. It certainly took me by surprise when I was a child and I went for tea at the homes of my friends, to discover that their homes were bereft of a dramatis personnae of students and spare musicians; but I don't regret the breadth of my background one iota.
On one occasion, when I was about seventeen, I opened the door to an adult student of my father's. I had never met him before, so politely said 'I'll just go upstairs and tell him you're here'.
As was often the case, my father said 'give him a cup of coffee and I'll be down in ten minutes'...so I obliged.
About forty minutes later, my father released the previous student, and appeared in the kitchen, where I was chatting to the new person.
'How are you?' asked my father.
'Thank you, fine, your wife has been looking after me really well' replied the new student.
Not often I saw my father stuck for words; but it happened then.