I remember Sr. Ellen with special fondness during the early to mid-seventies when she was a very young daughter of charity of St. Vincent de Paul at St. Louise’s Hostel, Medway St. London. She was the very first person to have mentally, psychologically and emotionally touched a part of the main chord of my painful soul. She was the first person who had ever tried to get to know me as a real person. I was very wild and grossly mixed up and never allowed any human being in authority near me or to get close. She somewhat opened up slightly the tightly-sealed lid of my estranged confused life. All through guitar and folk music and stories from the Velveteen Rabbit by Margery Williams and The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry She had such a beautiful singing voice. It would bring tears to ones eyes. especially when she sang. Oh, You Are a Mucky Kid, Dirty as a Dustbin Lid…
“What is REAL?” asked the Rabbit one day, when they were lying side by side near the nursery fender, before Nana came to tidy the room. “Does it mean having things that buzz inside you and a stick-out handle?”
“Real isn’t how you are made,” said the Skin Horse. “It’s a thing that happens to you. When a child loves you for a long, long time, not just to play with, but REALLY loves you, then you become Real.”
“Does it hurt?” asked the Rabbit.
“Sometimes,” said the Skin Horse, for he was always truthful. “When you are Real you don’t mind being hurt.”
“Does it happen all at once, like being wound up,” he asked, “or bit by bit?”
“It doesn’t happen all at once,” said the Skin Horse. “You become. It takes a long time. That’s why it doesn’t happen often to people who break easily, or have sharp edges, or who have to be carefully kept. Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joints and very shabby. But these things don’t matter at all, because:
once you are Real you can’t be ugly, except to people who don’t understand.”
“I suppose you are real?” said the Rabbit. And then he wished he had not said it, for he thought the Skin Horse might be sensitive.
But the Skin Horse only smiled.
I was not liked by the new head honcho at the hostel, the latter, of which was run by the daughters of charity of St. Vincent de Paul for young Irish (working/studying only) girls. Sr. Anne (who appeared to me to be a cold, clinical, plumpish; older, matronly figure with a plasticated grin and blazing blue bifocal eyes, which venomously oozed with rage, had replaced the gentle, kindly saintly figure of Sr. Anthony) had hailed from the north of England, and it appeared to the residents that she was sent by the top-dog of her order to eventually close down Medway St.. I do know that other residents and sisters saw Sr. Anne as a very congenial, kindly and holy person. But then she was the boss and most people like to now-tow to those in authority. So there could have been a lack of chemistry on both our parts. I perhaps found her very threatening due to my very insecure state. I do recall being absolutely petrified of the outside world, which would have harked back to my institutional past, and of having to go to the office each week to the new nun to pay my rent, and the terror of wondering whether she was going to yet again ask me if I’d found new accommodation. She was indicative of change in my life and that spelled of disaster. Only survivors of industrial *schools* and others who’ve never had a stable home would understand the depth of despair at being turfed out into an alien lonely world. I knew no other world outside the hostel. It was my home. I found it unfathomable that she could be so callous in her dealings with me, but then again, she was not to know what was going on in my mind, as she absolutely knew nothing about me, as did anyone else for that matter. NOBODY but Nobody knew anything about me in fact, how could they, when I didn’t know a thing about myself.
A lot of very young English ballerinas in Arts Educational Schools training had latterly arrived on the hostel scene. Julie Peasgood was one of them. She was very single-minded and down to earth and practical. She came from the north and was not considered posh in any way by her peers, whom I detected had kind of kept a distance from her. That’s how I perceived it with my eyes.
Julie had this to say almost a decade and a half ago at free library.
In 1973, Julie was 17 and at dancing school when an injured ankle turned out to be the twist of fate which launched her acting career. With time to kill, she took a role in a small play, was spotted by an agent and quickly landed the lead in the acclaimed ITV drama Cherry Ripe And The Lugworm Digger.
“I had very long blonde hair and I had it all chopped off, not much better than a pudding basin cut, to play this gauche young girl who lost her virginity to a man who dug worms out of the sand for fishing bait,”says Julie, now 41 and with her trademark blonde hair long once again.
“I wasn’t off screen for 60 minutes – it was a great start.”
“I don’t believe anything happens by accident and you have to learn to go with the flow.”
I remember congratulating Julie when I was standing the dinner queue on her new found success. Sr. Anne was none too happy about a ballet dancer called Hammi who first befriended me. Hammi and I were such eccentric new-age kindred spirits. She was so individualistic and didn’t feel the need to have to hang about with the élite ballet clan to establish who she was as a person. We got on like a house on fire. We were so devil-may-care. She had a thick posh English accent and went to Ballet Rambert and I had a thick Irish accent and had a good job at a local building society, as heretofore I’d stuffed the management with lies about my educational credentials in order to obtain the good job. Hammi introduced me to the theatre and ballet world and we went to lots of concerts where her brother was performing as a conductor. The camaraderie between us infuriated Sr. Anne, who made it quite clear by her demeanour, not words that she thought Hammi was lowering herself by keeping company with me. I failed inwardly to understand why she thought I was beneath her, as I was coming from an industrial *school* background and knew nothing about class distinction, other than that of those who were on the higher rung of the Goldenbridge ladder and who were treated with kid-gloves in comparison to those like me who were given the most measliest of jobs and treated like third world folk.
There was another sister of charity who resided at the hostel, who did pastoral work at Southwark Cathedral. Every Sunday, Liz , who slept in the next cubicle to me, went to the cathedral to play guitar at the folk-masses. We were also very good friends. Liz wrote her own songs and had a big swanky acoustic guitar to die for. Liz had a twin-sister who went into an enclosed order in East Sussex at the age of seventeen. She took me to see her before she was sent off to India. The daughter of charity sister had made it patently clear by her hostile demeanour that she did not like Liz keeping company with the likes of me. I was never invited to Southwark to sing. It was from Liz – who was of half-Polish and half French extraction – that I learned to love the music of Joan Baez and Polish Pepper soup. When Liz moved out of Medway St. into digs. Sue Menhenick a ballet dancer moved into her cubicle. See: second dancer in beige short frilly dress with brown ribbon trimmings. The dancing is still really good!
What a lonely contact. She neither looked right nor left in my direction. One would think that this dancer from Arts Educational was somebody of importance. She didn’t eventually become a successful classical Ballet Rambert dancer like Hammi. I don’t even think she looked right or left at Julie Peasgood either (who had blonde hair down to her backside and a very distinct friendly working-class northern accent.) I could be wrong? I recall telling Julie, that she would go far in her chosen career, as she had such a warm friendly smile and personality. I was right. Mind you, I don’t fault SM’s dancing as she was selected from five hundred applicants at Arts Educational ballet school and that was a very big achievement in her very young life. She was expert in her field. It was only her stand-offish temperament that I found utterly unappealing, especially when there had been such a friendly open person living in the cubicle before her arrival. It was a shock to the system. I don’t do snobbishness, not even today, especially not with folk who appear to think they are better or more intelligent than the rest of the human race.
Mrs. Whitehouse would often write in and say she thought these costumes were disgraceful and how on earth did they stay on our bodies?
Well – I suppose in some other big way I did give the sisters room for talk! As indeed every Tuesday evening a bus called to the hostel to bring girls to the sea-mens mission, which was way over in the East End of London. As one can envisage, it was the Irish girls who thronged the bus, as they, like myself, were mad into the dancing and music and the mighty craic. They just loved to let their hair down and feel free from the constant stress of the alien stiff upper lip culture that they had to contend with in general from British society. They came back from the dances all love-forlorn, all stupefied and all too spluttered and worn out from singing all kinds of Irish songs on the bus. So in all probability the ebullient, boisterous, drunken behaviour of some, which subsequently seeped over as they crookedly wended their way back into the hostel, could have hugely coloured the vision of the Irish to the aforementioned nuns. The Irish were none too dignified or classy enough for the students of Arts Education or Hammi, who for some unknown reason to me was the only ballet-dancer who went to Ballet Rambert.
Perhaps another reason why the sisters didn’t want the ex-boarding ballet school residents mixing with me could possibly have been because of the fact that I had arrived at the hostel via the services of the Legion of Mary who helped people who were homeless in London.
I think Sr. Anthony was not too popular because she tended to be drawn to people with drug problems and people who were down on their luck and marginalized. She would have been considered a softie and paying too much attention to the more marginalised of the hostel fraternity. She was absolutely fantastic with one particular drug-addict called Mary, whose sister had unfortunately died of an overdose of drugs. She was in her early twenties. Sr. Anthony had also been like a mother to her as well. Both of them, like myself had been in institutional care. I used to visit Mary in her cubicle all the time and really empathised with her. She was always tucked up in bed and looked very poorly. Nobody in the whole wide world ever knew that I came from an Irish industrial school, as I’d completely blocked out my Irish past. I was numb to the world, despite my outward appearances. I used to stuff people with lies about my background. The story-line varied depending on who the listener was who wanted to know at any given time. Now, in hindsight, I think it would have been known to the sisters that I came from an abnormal background as every Christmas and holidays, the hostel emptied of residents and I was always there.
It was during one of these times that Sister Ellen tried to get to know me by getting into gentle conversation with me in her tiny cubicle.. She had a cubicle the same as the rest of the residents, just a few doors up the narrow hallway. (So unlike the eerie prison cells of the Sisters of Mercy that nobody, but God, could enter.) I remember her telling me that she came from Hereford, and that she was born in Nairobi, as her father was in the army and that she had a brother. I was an expert at listening to people telling me about their families, but an even bigger expert at not divulging anything about myself. To be perfectly honest, I did not know who I was at all. I used to get terribly upset at seeing other residents going off on holidays and families of theirs coming to collect them at the hostel. I also had this problem in Goldenbridge as well, where I’d spent most of my childhood every Sunday looking out the Sacred Heart dormitory window watching visitors come up the big long avenue to see their daughters. I always sobbed into my sleeve, as there were never any visitors for me. Even to this day when I hear people continually talk about their families I literally just want to puke. Especially those who never seem to stop, it’s as if the world revolves around them and they seem to lock the rest of the world out of their cosy-set-up. It’s at times like this that I ask questions as to why they were blessed with good families and why were people like Mary and myself and others in the world like us were so deprived from the word go. We were affectionless thieves as children and have continued to be affectionless thieves and are kept at arms length by most of the world because they have not got the wherewithal to understand the depth of the pain in our very souls. It takes special people like Sister Ellen, who can weep because of our suffering and the suffering of those who find it a struggle to live in the world. Give me a wo/man’s moccasins and let me walk in them a dozen miles before I can verily say that I understand from whence s/he derives.
There was a fantastic flaxen haired resident called Jenni Armstrong at the hostel. She had a powerfully strong voice despite her fragile physique /nature. She wrote brilliant songs. She was big into Joni Mitchell, Janis Joplin and Barclay James Harvest and all things folk rock. Jenni played the guitar along with Sister Ellen and Welsh girl, Jane Roberts, who taught us Welsh songs, and a petite angelic-looking long -haired plaited left-handed guitar player called Sue Laxton at a folk-group that was started up by Sister Ellen. I could not jell with Sue Laxton, she was a very timid gentle girl, who got a lot of sympathy for being adopted and having such an innocent nature. She was the darling of the nuns and could never put a foot wrong. She got a good job with the daughters of charity in Enfield working in a group home with children, but she appeared to be so child-like herself. It sure does pay to be sweet and timid and all things nice. She was everything I wasn’t, but the poor girl probably acted that way out of insecurity. She never did a thing wrong to me. If Sister Anne had had her way she’d have seen to it that I was barred from the group. It was always her wish to get rid of me sooner rather than later out of the hostel. If Sister Ellen hadn’t pleaded with her on my behalf so many times she’d have kicked me out long before my time. The folk-group was invited to lots of places to sing. It was in this group that I first learned to play the guitar and harmony skills properly and I was in seventh heaven, as music was such a big avenue to all the pent up emotions that were built up inside me. I have never looked back music-wise all my life and when the world continually failed to let me down I was always able to take out my guitar and sing. I have so much to thank Sister Ellen for first sharing her wonderful talent with us. Jenni and I became very good friends and she brought me to her home in Farnborough, Hants. I even saw the inside of Bristol University where she went to study the humanities after she left St. Louise’s hostel.
The differentiation between the other sisters of charity and Sr. Ellen speaks for itself in the account that I’ve given here. So it was very unsurprising to learn that she had very much later become the director of the Passage – that I was to come to know on a voluntary basis, when it was under the helm of another teacher, Sr. Pauline Gaughan DC R.I.P. of the same order in Carisle Place, after I left, Medway St. and moved to the south east of England before returning to reside in Francis St. directly opposite Westminster Cathedral.
Liverpool Lullaby (or, The Mucky Kid)
Oh you are a mucky kid, Dirty as a dustbin lid. When he hears the things you did, You’ll gerra belt from your Dad. Oh you have your father’s nose, So crimson in the dark it glows,If you’re not asleep when the boozers close, You’ll gerra belt from your Dad.
You look so scruffy lying due Strawberry-jam tats in yer ‘air, Though in the world you haven’t a care And I have got so many. It’s quite a struggle every day Living on your father’s pay, The bugger drinks it all away And leaves me without any.
Although we have no silver spoon, Better days are coming soon Now Nelly’s working at the Lune And she gets paid on Friday. Perhaps one day we’ll have a splash, When Littlewoods provide the cash, We’ll get a house in Knotty Ash And buy your Dad a brewery.
Oh you are a mucky kid, Dirty as a dustbin lid. When he hears the things you didYou’ll gerra belt from your Dad. Oh you have your father’s face, You’re growing up a real hard case, But there’s no one can take your place, ….Go fast asleep for yer Mammy.
Notes: Cilla Black still gets many requests to sing the Mucky Kid song! Many other artists have recorded this number including Jacquie and Bridie, and Judy Collins