Sunday, 13 January 2013
Growing up in Broken Barnet: the making of Mrs Angry
Mrs Angry, bride of Christ: First Communion day at St Vincent's
What made Mrs Angry angry? What made Mrs Angry, come to that?
Because she was made, and not begotten, nearly three years ago now, in order to beat the London Borough of Broken Barnet into submission over an injustice being perpetrated by them (I was very naive, and thought that this was unusual, and might require a wider exposure: in fact Mrs Angry continued in her mission once she realise quite how many instances of injustice there are in Broken Barnet).
But talking of beating into submission: the earliest genesis of Mrs Angry, and the blogging diva that she was to become, took place a long, long time ago, in early childhood, at a Catholic primary school in Broken Barnet, and one which, by no coincidence, also nurtured, if that is the word, the education of fellow blogger Mr Roger Tichborne, of the Barnet Eye.
The school, St Vincent's, on the Ridgeway in Mill Hill village, was run by the Daughters of Charity of St Vincent de Paul, (sometimes referred to as the Sisters of Charity) who lived in the adjoining convent, based in the beautiful seventeenth century house, Littleberries, (sometimes claimed to have been owned by Nell Gwyn).
Sister Gabriel was the formidable headmistress, and she ruled the school with not a rod of iron, exactly, more the rule of the cane, and a bat. It was a pretty effective deterrent.
the Daughters of Charity
Within the convent there was a late Victorian chapel, which we attended once a week for mass, and benediction, trying not to end up kneeling next to the glass fronted tomb of a Holy Innocent child martyr, in which lay a life size painted effigy, perhaps in wax, dressed in dusty, bejewelled velvet clothes, lying on a silken bed and tasselled bolster: school mythology said this was the embalmed body of a real child, and we would stare in fascination at the figure: quite frequently children would feel faint at the sheer horror of proximity to such an object, if they were made to sit anywhere near it.
Ironic, of course, that the chapel should be dedicated to a martyred child, and the loss of innocence. St Vincent de Paul, incidentally, whose statue presided over the school, the founder of the order of nuns who were entrusted with our education and spiritual well being, was himself a deeply compassionate man, dedicated to the principle of practical charity, of support for the poor, and in particular the care of foundling children.
Memories of the interesting educational experience delivered in his name at this school are never that far away, all these years later, but resurfaced with renewed vigour this week on hearing the news that a teacher at this school, the infamous Miss O'Donovan, died this Christmas, at the age of 97.
I had assumed that this woman had died decades ago, and had often comforted myself with the thought that she must now be accommodated in the place she was so keen on explaining to her six year old pupils, in such salacious detail: the inferno of eternal punishment and expiation of sins. If you've read the first few chapters of Joyce's 'Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man', you'll get the picture: devils, fire, unbearable and unrelenting torture, and serving you right for being a sinner - damned to the worst kind of Catholic hell.
But only just beginning her own term in hell, then, Miss O' Donovan: arriving at the gates to eternal punishment, trembling, like the infant Mrs Angry, all those years ago, a new girl, standing in the doorway of the classroom, regarding the rows of fifty or more already traumatised children who would be her fellow pupils.
The children in this class were divided into three groups and labelled accordingly: the Top Table, for the brightest, by the window; the Middle table, and on the far side of the room, against the partition wall, the 'Baby' or 'Lazy' Table, for those who were struggling - including a notable number of children with quite severe learning disabilities.
These categories were used openly, casually, without challenge; and the streams into which the children were put were almost entirely unaltered as we moved up through the classes. This was the era of 11 plus, where measuring intelligence and ability was a practice keenly observed, and grammar school potential was something to cultivate, at the expense of those who were destined for the waste bin of local secondary modern schools. The sort of educational principles of which Michael Gove would highly approve, in fact.
The children on the 'lazy/baby' table spent a fair amount of their time being punished for their slowness, made to climb up on their chairs and stand, with arms up, hands on heads, for tortuous lengths of time. CIA type routines, guaranteed to crack even the most obstinate six year old caught speaking in class ... Empty vessels make the most sound, as Miss O'Donovan would tell them, sneeringly ... or failing some other unwritten rule of our tyrannical teacher.
The privileged members of the top table generally escaped this humiliation, but Miss O'Donovan had a full range of other measures calculated to keep the class in a state of perpetual fear. I was subject to most of these: membership of the top table did not spare me from the regular beatings on my six year old hand, with a heavy wooden ruler, for spelling mistakes, or difficulty in learning the times tables, or making some other sort of unforgivable mistake. It wasn't enough to receive the ruler, in fact, the hand had to be held in a tight fist, so that the knuckles would receive more of a crack. It hurt: a lot.
Learning difficulties were not recognised then, of course, but being dyspraxic meant, for me that quickly learning anything by rote, or following complex instructions, was almost impossible: our foul tempered teacher had no patience for any such weaknesses, and mercilessly punished any child who made any sort of error.
Every opportunity for punishment was taken with evident glee, in fact: a child who needed to leave the classroom to visit the loo was invariably refused permission, for failing to use the facilities during breaks. The predictable and frequent result would be that shamed children would leave pools of urine on the floor, unable to wait any longer. They would then be punished for that, as well, then - and made to clear it up.
There was one poor boy in the class who had severe learning and physical disabilities. Miss O'Donovan had little time for him, so it would often be the duty of top table children to take care of him - sometimes Mrs Angry was instructed to spend the afternoon trying to teach him the alphabet, pointing at a chart on the back of a door, with a long wooden stick, like a child in a Victorian village school - or rather like Smike, the victim of Squeers in Dotheboys Hall. Eventually this boy's worried parents came in to see Miss O'Donovan - an unheard of impertinence - he disappeared, then, and the class was told that he had been sent to a school for 'the subnormal'.
St Vincent's Convent Chapel
The other abiding memory of Miss O'Donovan's class is of the terrifying distortion of the Catholic faith that was promulgated by this teacher, and her partner in crime, the local priest, Fr Kavanagh, who attended regularly as we were preparing for our first confessions, and then first holy communions.
This entailed more learning by heart of prayers, rites, catechism: more torment.
The pair of them would also delight in telling us tales of Catholic saints, overseas missionaries -in one instance African martyrs captured by 'pagan' chiefs, who had their limbs hacked off, were then rolled up in matting and set on fire, dying agonising deaths: this tale gave me nightmares for years. It was intended to: a nod to the fiery fate awaiting us if we failed to lead lives fully in accordance with the faith.
Fr Kavanagh was a bad tempered old devil, who would arrive in class in his black biretta, stand next to Miss O'Donovan and address the children, his baleful eye sweeping the class, looking for a victim to order to stand up and repeat their lesson. She would stand next to him, preening herself, calling out names in her shrill, heavily Irish accented voice, daring any of us to get anything wrong and give her another excuse for a dose of her discipline.
Miss O'Donovan was a remarkably vain woman, despite what seemed to us as her advanced age, always impeccably dressed, in smart wool suits, stiletto heeled shoes, her dark dyed curly hair in a rigid perm, mouth a blood red gash of scarlet lipstick, her lined face grotesquely smothered in powder: ( think Joan Crawford, or Bette Davis in 'Whatever Happened to Baby Jane') ... and nails that were manicured, and buffed, and filed to a point, all the better to jab sharply into the flesh of your upper arm to make a point, and leave a mark, when chastising you for some perceived misdemeanour.
On the little finger of one hand she wore a signet ring, set with a blue enamelled image of Our Lady- a Miraculous Medal.
I can vividly remember one stormy afternoon, standing at her table nervously reading to her a dreary story of working elephants in India carrying logs in their trunks, whilst thunder and lightening blasted the sky outside. Miss O'Donovan stopped, and made the sign of the cross with her claw-like fingers, the protective image of the Virgin Mary darting across her head, heart and shoulders ... if you didn't do this, when a storm broke, she said, and you were struck by lightening, and died on the spot, the devil would take your soul. (In later years I was struck by lightening, and luckily survived, but came uncomfortably close to testing this theory).
We were also instructed that we should perform the sign of the cross, with the invocation INRI, the sign pinned to the cross at the crucifiction, last thing before we went to sleep, just in case we died during the night, unblessed, our infant souls ready prey for the devil. This used to cause a fair amount of worry over timing: would you be falling asleep right away, or should you wait a bit? If I should die, before I wake, I pray the Lord my soul to take ...
The same afternoon, on leaving the classroom, feeling very unwell, the cool rain falling on my fevered face felt like a blessing, and indeed a miracle, as I knew illness meant time off school, and an escape from the daily torture.
Later that afternoon, safely home, lying curled up in bed, reading a child's guide to the Greek myths, (yes, a library book) luxuriating in the thought of no school, was absolute bliss. A temporary reprieve. Of course, on return to school, so many lessons missed meant more mistakes, and more punishment from Miss O' Donovan.
Was this regime meant to ensure a lifetime of adherence to the church? We were lectured on the need for faith, which was an act of grace, and would arrive, like a lovely present, when God decided we were ready. Were our souls ready? I consulted my prayer book, which had a picture of a rather smug child kneeling in prayer, his soul a radiant white cloud of amorphous spiritual matter glowing in his chest, newly cleansed of the stain of sin: ah, yes, there was first the matter of sin, which needed to be dealt with by our first confessions.
This prayer book admonished the young reader preparing for this sacrament, and asked them to examine their conscience. Had they, for example, had any impure thoughts? In adult life, Mrs Angry has had many impure thoughts, but at the age of six? The prayer book illustrated this with a picture of a young girl lingering outside a cinema, admiring the posters. The infant Mrs Angry thought guiltily about her own visits to the cinema: Disney films, Mary Poppins, the Sound of Music: had these engendered any impure thoughts? No. Only a lifelong hatred of Julie Andrews.
And Miss O'Donovan, then. Why was she so hateful, and so cruel?
She enjoyed her regime of terror, and relished the humiliation of very young children.
Like many other bullies, she probably would have defended her behaviour as a duty to oversee a rule of discipline. But she took pleasure from it. To some children, carefully chosen, she could choose to be more favourable: but only when it suited her. It is impossible to recall any act of kindness, sympathy, or glimpse of humour. The only time she smiled was when she had succeeded in some petty triumph over a child, or when a visitor came to the class. The calculation of someone who knew exactly what she was doing.
One might imagine that she was gravely disappointed in her life's journey: a woman so preoccupied with her appearance must have hoped, at one time, to get married and have her own family, presumably - or perhaps she was, like many of our teachers, a nun who lost her vocation. Doesn't matter, really: what she became was something shameful, and abhorrent: someone entrusted with the care of children, who abused her role, and caused untold damage.
Equally unforgivable, she and all teachers and clergy like her betrayed the very thing they claimed to be defending: the true, loving Christian values that they disgraced with their own perverted interpretation of the church's teachings.
It is a miracle that any of us retained any faith at all, after such an education, and that some did so is only due to the better examples set by other clergy and teaching staff who had genuine vocations, and a real sense of religious duty.
Miss O'Donovan taught at that school for more than thirty years, and many children were traumatised by her behaviour. The younger brother of one classmate, for example, was so badly affected by his time in her class, his parents removed him from the school, and took him to a psychotherapist for counselling.
Why did she get away with it? Because we didn't tell anyone. We accepted it, although we knew she was doing something wrong. We had to. Life was unfair, and harsh. It was the way things were. Would anyone have believed us, or dared to challenge it? And we didn't want to tell our parents that we had been in trouble with a teacher. Parents at that time accepted the judgement of teachers without question. They accepted the authority of the church without question.
Imagine my feelings, then, looking at the death notices of this woman, 'much loved', apparently, and even 'adored' by nieces, nephews, great nieces, great nephews, given the honour of a requiem mass at Westminster Cathedral ... on a lesser scale, but still, rather like seeing those BBC stories dedicated to celebrating the life of Jimmy Savile, infuriating, offensive.
The stories that have emerged over the last year about sexual abuse of children by Savile, and others illustrate exactly why children subject to exploitation of any kind are inclined to remain silent. In those days, authority, respectability, was unchallenged. And children were seen, but not heard.
In many years of Catholic education, sexual abuse was something, fortunately, that was unheard of, or unspoken, in my experience. Not to say that it did not happen, of course, but it is easy to understand why the victims of such treatment have been silent so long.
The bullying and cruelty, the physical, emotional and psychological abuse of children by this and one or two other teachers at this school, and undoubtedly at similar establishments all over the country, however, was real, and prevalent, and has had a life long effect.
Such an experience seeps into the core of your self confidence, your sense of security. The sense of powerlessness in the face of such treatment is hard to undo, and may never be undone, in adult life. Worse still, it may educate you to expect all relationships to be based on an imbalance of power.
Still: a sense of injustice, an urge to challenge hypocrisy, institutionalised abuse, is perhaps inevitably forged in such an environment: in later life such experience teaches you to mistrust authority, to demand honesty, decency and accountability in public life, and to defy the bullying of those seeking to impose such injustice on others.
And the voice you did not have in childhood, you find in later life: so here, Miss O' Donovan, is Mrs Angry, speaking out - and wielding her own wooden ruler ...
Rest in peace.
If you can.