My mother had always loved ‘Alice in Wonderland.’
These are some tiny ceramics she made after she and my father had given up their careers in puppetry. She also made dragons and my father threw pots and made moulds for vases and goblets.
Her life was one of chasing butterflies, a promising dancer grounded by the realities of war. Adapting her creative skills to meet new patterns in our lives, sewing costumes for our marionettes and performing with them.
In between rises and falls in our puppetry enterprises she did other things. Once she set up a flameproof children’s nightwear mail order company after she heard news of a child being burned to death near an open fire. She spent ages tracking down the material, creating the patterns, making the nighties and even got a mention in Nursery World.
We rented our flat and studio in our grandparents house because it was an economic necessity for all concerned. Grandpa still worked part-time in the family greengrocers and fruit shop in Goodge Street, but had been shell shocked and gassed on the Somme and was never as robust as he had once been.
He used to say one of the best moments of his life was being taken by my parents to Buckingham Palace when they entertained the Queen at a children’s party for Prince Charles and Princess Anne. My mother decided he could go along as their assistant to pull the curtains in between scenes. My sister and I were bit put out because we had always done it and grandpa had never pulled a curtain in his life! But mother said he had fought for his country and it was right that he should go!
Our grandparents often looked after my sister and I when our parents were touring. I guess they were responsible for much our our upbringing. Something I discovered we had in common with other entertainers including Roy Hudd whom I met several times when I was in show business.
But our parents sometimes took us with them from May to the end of September when they had shows for summer seasons in Bognor, Clacton, Blackpool and Scarborough.
The North Pier Blackpool
‘It’s a small world’ for our marionettes,
three shows daily on the North Pier.
Our parents busy, we take stock – the mighty
black tower, the circus and ballroom.
Donkeys stand in line ready for a ride
trams trundle along the promenade.
Crowds gather on the famous golden mile, kiss me
quick hats, tuppence to see a mermaid.
The man from Mars in a bright green jump suit
is surreptitiously eating a big cream bun.
And so the season goes on, families from the mills
the mines and the factories, everyone laughing
My sister was very bright, she worked in the fashion industry when she left school. She also helped my mother with a series for Granada TV. She married when she was quite young and had two lovely children. A few years later I married too and had two sons, but we became single parents at about the same time and re-trained in our thirties to be a primary school teachers. That did not stop us working as a double act briefly in an attempt to boost our finances!
The very the last time we got together as a family for anything to with with puppetry was making the marionettes and performing with them in the film ‘Oh What a Lovely War’ on Brighton’s West Pier.
Oh What a Lovely War – 1969
Her needle flies over tiny white gloves.
Stitches develop a regular rhythm,
she can almost hear the sound of marching feet.
Braid on bright blue hat and jacket, red pants,
a shiny metal helmet, a gleaming breast plate.
Fine nylon strings bring them all to life.
Now they bump along the road
in a Bedford Dormobile,
immaculate, neatly packed.
No muddy trenches for them,
off to the West Pier in Brighton
to take their place in the sun.
Extras play with parasols or eat ice cream.
The film crew balance on flimsy ladders,
“Camera, action, take one.”
Jean Paul Cassell bangs the drum,
“Roll up, roll up, for the greatest show on earth.”
Curtains open. Puppets take the stage.
The soldiers’ rubber boots bob in time,
the captain jerks his bugle from his lips,
the French general sheathes his sword.
Only the old brown horse borrowed
from another show looks weary, while in the wings
a small platoon makes ready for their fate.
‘A copper collection will take place
at the end of the performance’
says the writing on the wall.
When our summer seasons came to a halt my father, mother and I moved to Cabaret and the occasional TV appearance. But we still had our touring theatre and did a great many Road Safety Shows in London Schools,
As well as the many ups and downs in show business, my mother eventually had to stay at home to care for our grandparents!
Fast forward several years!
My mother in her sixties and without a pension, went back briefly to fashion design, but later became the Principal of The Royal School of Needlework, bringing to the role her business skills, teaching and knowledge of embroidery.
She had her own office and was instrumental in the choice of lace for Princess Diana’s wedding veil.
Later on because she was the only one that knew how the antiquated telephone system worked, she was asked to stay in the school during the siege of the Iranian Embassy next door.
In mid and later life both my parents had creative enterprises quite independently from each other. They were always friends but at one time had separate flats in London.
Fortunately with the help of an inheritance from an aunt she had bought a cottage in her 50s and finally retired to it with my father.
In her seventies, when my father died, she could no longer manage the cottage and sold it to my son Robin and moved to live near me. This is the cottage in winter!
My mother quickly decided we had to have an allotment. It provided many hours of pleasure for both of us. She often rode to it on her tricycle when I was working.
She also had a her own small garden and loved planning and planting.
Miss Lottie’s Last Chance.
She sets the brim of her straw hat
at what she hopes is a rakish angle
brushes bits of twig from her brown
cotton skirt, pulls the arms of her holey
cardie closer like a hopeful hug.
She climbs on a stool and places
bits of stray string into a rusty tin,
wipes secateurs with an oily rag,
seals half-opened seed packets, placing
them into an obliging array of jars.
She takes a swig of a brandy from a bottle
marked for emergencies, while a grumpy owl
painted on a shopping bag glares.
She makes short shrift of him shaking the bag
upside down to dislodge lurking spiders.
From the corner of her eye she catches
sight of her old black wellies, blushes
at the memory of sitting, only yesterday
on her bench, near to tears, her limbs
too soggy with fatigue to pull them off.
How lucky that an old gent on his bike
was passing and joined in the tussle.
Today she slips out of her old gardening shoes,
watches a flock of rogue cockatiels
(Based on memories of my mother on her allotment)
From time to time in my life I tried to get stories published. Every time a piece was rejected my mother would say ‘they’ll be sorry.’ Luckily I had modest success with freelance journalism
My father was often impossible! He went to war a few months after I was born and my sister was on the way. We did not see him again until she was 5 and I was six My mother once said that she believed that he never really came to terms with to the loss of the musical career he had had as young man. Sad by probably true.
Music From Another Room – 1948
Flying through banks of clouds, sucking barley sugar
off to Paris to stay with Madame Roy and daughter Juliette
father’s war time friends. Bonjour, bonjour
polite exchanges, cups of English tea.
Madame throws open her kitchen window to reveal
on a white cloth, my mother’s home made cake
carried from London. Neighbours gather, “ooh la la”
“c’est magnifique”, plant wet kisses on our cheeks.
Music seeps in from another room, my father
not used to playing second fiddle to anyone
let alone my mother and her cake is playing La Mer
on Madame’s baby grand, we move to the sitting room.
Family portraits hang on the wall, father’s performance
is applauded, pieces of cake passed round, while Juliette
stands close to father and sings in perfect English
‘Pedute Cose’ a love song he wrote during the war.
In the days that follow we visit the Eiffel Tower
jog along the streets in a horse drawn cab, wander
Montmartre, watch artists fill canvasses with bold colours
bow our heads as we enter the Sacre Coeur.
We learn how to row on the lake near Versailles
every detail captured on father’s 8 mm movie camera
but the highlight the Theatre du Paris, where a tiny figure
dressed in black takes stage, picks up the microphone,
‘L’accordeonniste’ ‘Je ne regrette rien.’
for this is the little sparrow of Paris Edith Piaf
the audience stand, they shout bravo, bravo
she bows her head, smiles, reaches out in a final gesture.
The grown ups chatter, father in perfect French
they gather their things, my mother is ahead I follow
glancing back I see my father reach out and clasp
briefly Juliette’s hand.
Years later when I recall Paris, the apartment, my father’s
passion for the music of the age, Juliette looking down at him
as he played, I realise for a brief moment he may have had
all he ever wanted.
Whatever the truth of the situation my parents adored each other and worked creatively together for much of their lives.
When my mother came to live nearby we also decided to collect up as many of our marionettes as we could find. She conserved our the vast collection, re-dressing, mending, restringing etc
Finally we recreated some of our early productions in the loft of my tiny terraced house Just the two of us. Of course the manipulation was tricky and I had to jump up and down from our makeshift bridge to operate the camera. But we had so much fun. Some of them are now on youtube. My favourite is ‘Scenes from Alice in Wonderland’
We also filmed excepts from our cabarets.
I found some cuttings recently and realised that in the late 50s I was playing one theatre while my mother was performing at another. I had no idea what my father was doing, possibly looking after the old folk and decorating the house!
Well its mother’s day and I guess we all have something we could say about our mothers!
I write a lot of poetry, my way of coping with life. I just wish she was still here, I think she would have liked some of it.
We found it in Albi,
no gentle sketch
but boldly painted
bright and blowzy
heady with scent,
out for a good time.
loving the culture
flirted with passers-by
revelled in attention
posed for pictures.
Uprooted to Brighton
in a white fleece shroud
naked boughs mourned
sensing life had passed.
Two years later
in a new pot
on a south facing wall
tiny green shoots emerge,
show their party faces.
This is the book of Alice in Wonderland she was awarded – a red bound copy for good conduct at an ordinary state school in North London.
More than a mother of two children of course, a creative partner, a magical person, a grandmother, a great grandmother to three grandsons, she adored.
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