Extract from the memoirs of Olive Ordish
Née Harvey-James, 12 June 1906–18 October 2000. Publication: Jill of All Trades, 1990.
(from Chapter 3)
I was sent to stay with my paternal grandmother, ‘Granny James’, in Devonshire. She had seized the opportunity to buy a house in Westward Ho! on the North Devon coast when the United Services College, Rudyard Kipling’s old school and the scene of Stalky and Co., moved up country, leaving behind an assortment of abandoned school buildings to be sold off cheap. Among them were the boys’ boarding houses – ‘twelve tall houses by the sea’, as Kipling described them in verse – and it was into one of those that Granny moved on the very day of my birth with her widowed daughter-in-law, Aunt Nellie, and the latter’s children, Cissie born in 1897 and Ralph, three years younger.
Westward Ho! then consisted mostly of the scattered remnants of the school and was sparsely populated even in the holiday season. Although it contained a church, it was not like other villages. There was no public house, no farming community and no rows of pretty cottages. Many of the regular inhabitants were retired Armed Forces officers and Indian Civil Service officials with their families.
Two or three miles of sandy shore stretched up to the estuary of the Torridge. Behind the sands was the long barrier of the Pebble Ridge, made up of large, rounded boulders, and behind that again the Burrows, an area of marshland intersected with dykes, only a little of which was taken up by the then famous golf course. Sheep were pastured there, and I have watched two rams, their horns battering at each other in the fight for dominance. Towards the eastern end the Burrows merged into sand dunes.
To the west the coast changed into rocks and rocky pools. Behind lay a range of hills covered in bracken, among which my blonde and beautiful friend, Ismena, and I played at mermaids, swimming up to our necks in fern. The deserted swimming pool stood nearby, its scaling, echoing walls and waterless basin a wonderful background for games and adventure, and never anyone there to tell one not to.
Although part of a terrace, my grandmother’s house was quite big. Each of its five storeys contained two large rooms, a small one and a bathroom or lavatory.
The three middle storeys were connected by a rectangular spiral staircase – if that is a permissible geometrical expression – from the top of which one could look down the spacious well to a dizzying depth. The walls of the stairway were decorated with quantities of tiger and leopard skins, Indian swords and daggers in jewelled velvet scabbards, and metal-embossed leather shields, a vista that delighted my romantic heart. For I was romantically inclined, and still am, I suppose: a considerable disadvantage when faced with real life.
One bedroom was lined with bookcases holding classics, the Children’s Encyclopaedia, the three-volume novels to which my grandmother had been addicted, the boys’ school stories to which I was addicted, and many others. To this day the smell of slightly mouldy books takes me back to the delights of that room.
There were no longer live-in servants to occupy the attics. Such furniture as was there was covered with little brass Indian figures, gods and goddesses with many arms and sometimes animal heads. My brother and I played with them for hours.
I have dwelt at some length on this Devon background because the ambiance was strange in a way that strongly appealed to me. The convent school which we attended in nearby Bideford was unusual too. The nuns were Ursulines, nearly all French, the atmosphere very French and almost medieval. An anti-clerical law passed in France had confiscated their headquarters in Avalon until the order could accumulate sufficient funds to buy it back.
Meanwhile, the nuns inhabited what had once been Charles Kingsley’s home. The shadowy old house contained the nuns’ quarter, a lofty galleried hall, the chapel and the Reverend Mother’s parlour. To this building a bright modern annexe had been added to house the classrooms, refectory and two dormitories for the boarders.
Unlike many modern nuns, ours were clothed in flowing black habits and veils, with a becoming starched white headdress and, at the waist, a dangling rosary.
A nun slept in a white-curtained bed in each dormitory. The little girls in their beds would peep surreptitiously as their guardian undressed for the night, hoping in vain for some revelation of those mysterious robes as the curtains swayed and bulged, giving tantalising glimpses of black and white but no major disclosure. Sometimes the tall, thin figure of the neighbouring priest, Father Middleton, would cause nunly fluttering owing to his wandering in the garden and peering in at the classroom window with a friendly wave.
Small boys were also admitted to the school. I can just recall Basil, left alone in glass-roofed drill hall while his Catholic schoolfellows were at Mass, to amuse himself as best he could. This he did by becoming two warring armies. He would hurl himself from one end of the room with blood-curdling war cries, then suddenly turn round and charge in the opposite direction in the hope of meeting himself in battle. The noise was considerable.
I was to get to know the convent much better in later years, but on that occasion was only there for one term. The nuns made a pet of me because, at six years old, I was the youngest pupil. That I enjoyed.
I did at last learn to read, however, and not by any of the modern methods that had been tried. On the opening page of the First Reader a bold attempt had been made to present a theme entirely composed of two-letter words about ‘An Ox’, although the author had been forced to compromise by stating that the creature was in a ‘Box’. The following page told the classic tale of the cat sitting on the mat. Once I had mastered these I raced ahead.
By the end of the term my mother, who readily moved house, had settled in a Hampstead flat, while my father took a flat in Highgate, so I was sent back to London.
(from Chapter 4: 1914–17)
Later that summer the First World War broke out. How my father waited in a queue and with the help of some assumed Irish blarney persuaded the recruiting sergeant that he was much younger than his actual thirty-nine years, and so eligible for the army, is told in his book, The Phoenix. He joined as a private in the Artists’ Rifles, but before long was offered a commission in the East Kent Regiment, known as the Buffs.
My mother went to work for the Air Ministry, or whatever it was called in those early days, at its headquarters in Kingsway.
And so my brother and I returned to Devon. We had no idea of the horror of war. As we sat each on a tree branch in the garden I announced, ‘this war has taught me two things: there is a country called Belgium and there are captains in the army’.
Propaganda during the First World War was far more untruthful and virulent than during the second. Everyone and everything German was despicable, our military setbacks were concealed. Germany was ruled by two comic characters called Big Willie (the Kaiser) and Little Willie (the Crown Prince) whose only means of locomotion was the goose step.
I went back to the Convent and this time actually stayed at school there for two years or more, although I usually came up to London for the holidays. Basil did not remain so long as he soon began to attend Colet Court, preparatory school for St Paul’s in London.
We travelled from Waterloo Station to Bideford ‘in care of the guard’, quite a usual procedure then. The kindly guard would come along the corridor and look into the compartment every so often to check that all was well. By that time we had usually made friends with the other occupants.
At Bideford we were met by Aunt Nellie, who conducted us back to Hereward House. For by then Granny had bestowed that name on the former 8 Kingsley Terrace in honour of the hero of Arthur Scott Craven’s blank verse play The Last of the English. It sounded so much better in entries to Who’s Who and other such reference books.
That was typical of Granny James, who could not resist a little grandeur. Years later we heard someone describe her as ‘the great Mrs Harvey James’. How delighted she would have been! And how clever to have given that impression on such limited grounds!
When I heard her one day denigrating women I protested, ‘but Granny, you are a woman.’ ‘Yes, my dear,’ she replied, ‘but I have the brains of a man.’
I picture her sitting nearly always in her armchair, sometimes playing bridge with her friends, Aunt Nellie making a fourth. Sitting reading in the hearth I would hear bitter reproaches, ‘I can’t think what made you play the Queen of Spades,’ and so on. Never, I thought to myself, will I play that disagreeable game, little knowing that in time I would enjoy it very much.
Granny lost no opportunity to snub and put upon Aunt Nellie, who slaved away and bore it patiently for the sake of the children and with the support of her religion.
My cousin Ralph, nearly seven years my senior, was the apple of his grandmother’s eye. She paid for his education at Stoneyhurst. He knew just how to please her with his hearty, look-you-straight-in-the-eye manner. She told with pride how when someone accused him of being tied to his granny’s apron strings, he made the unlikely reply, ‘and jolly good apron strings too!’
I adored Ralph as well. What an honour when he let me help him clean his gun! ‘Cousins are allowed to marry and I’m going to marry Ralph when I grow up,’ I declared. He showed very little enthusiasm for the plan.
His older sister, Cissie, although not exactly meek, was famous for being shy. She was by now a senior girl at the Convent and given to expressions such as ‘jolly ripping’.
Since we were mutually each other’s only first cousins, and since we spent so much time together in the same household, we felt more like brothers and sisters than cousins.
The old lady was an affectionate and benevolent grandmother, always on the lookout for some ingenious advantage for us. When I was in my teens I was given golf lessons by the club professional. (All I can remember was something called ‘the interlocking grip’.) Cissie received singing lessons from some local cut-price teacher, who I now imagine to have been something of a charlatan. I still remember her high, strained rendering of a song about a little house in a little town and thinking even then that such unnatural sounds could not be quite right.
Whenever I arrived in Devon there were tuts of disapproval at my knee-length skirts and bobbed hair. Aunt Nellie was deputed to let down my hems and my hair was allowed to grow. On my return to London it would be bobbed again and my skirt returned to its original length.
Granny would ask loaded questions such as ‘Which do you think of as your real home, London or here?’ Intensely loyal to my mother I replied ‘Wherever Mummy is,’ which could hardly have endeared me to the questioner. I feel now that I could have given the old lady some happiness by showing more love and sympathy. Not that I disliked or was ever rude or defiant to her. That would have been unthinkable.
My love for Aunt Nellie, however, flowed quite spontaneously. Strangely, during sewing classes at the Convent, the presiding nun would read us the most grisly ghost stories by A.C. Benson. I thoroughly enjoyed them, the grislier the better, until, that is, I was alone in bed at night. Then terror would seize me. A skeleton might peer round the door. Or, if I moved at all or even breathed too audibly, something might hear me and, if I attempted to get out of bed, grab me. Nevertheless, when the fear mounted unbearably, I would spring up, my heart beating, race into the next room where Aunt Nellie slept, and jump into the safety of her bed. She had probably just relaxed after an exhausting day, but she never repulsed me.
Another aunt who figured in my life at that time was Great-Aunt May, by then Lady Crosthwaite, her husband having been knighted for his services to India. She was the eldest of my grandfather’s six sisters, rather stout and very stately, and lived in a large house, Lakenham, at Northam, a nearby village. In spite of a certain stiff formality of manner, she was remarkably kind and indulgent to her small great-niece and often had me to visit. I loved life at Lakenham, where I could explore the big garden at leisure. Sometimes I was even encouraged to lie in a hammock with a selection of books while the gardener brought me hothouse peaches or grapes.
There were morning prayers before breakfast at which the family and servants would gather while Uncle Bob read from the Bible. Then we would all turn round and kneel at our chairs. That often revealed the humiliating fact that I could not do my dress up at the back, though, if there was time beforehand, the parlour maid, who was my special friend, would do it up for me.
Uncle Bob was a dried-up nut of a man, very sparing of his words, a good deal older than his wife and completely devoted to her. My mother told me that when she visited Lakenham with her mother-in-law early in her marriage Uncle Bob was picking a bunch of sweet peas in the garden when Granny asked him in her most winning way, ‘Are those for me, Bob?’
‘No, no,’ he mumbled, ‘they’re for May.’
Aunt May had a friend, a slightly patronised lady called Miss Montefiore, who was an excellent pianist. My aunt asked her to play Mendelsohn’s ‘Bees’ Wedding’ for me. I listened entranced, imagining flickering flames.
‘Doesn’t that make you think of bees flying about?’ she asked.
I replied with the simple truth. ‘It makes me think of a house on fire.’
‘Then you are a very silly little girl!’ snapped Aunt May, feeling hurt for her friend and leaving me crushed.
Another memory is of her taking me to Northam Church, when I took a clean handkerchief out of my pocket. ‘Always unfold a handkerchief before you go out,’ she adjured me. ‘One looks such a fool if one has to shake it out in front of everyone!’
Now I come to a shocking example of juvenile delinquency. I must have been nine or ten years old. At the end of Kingsley Terrace stood a large, empty detached house – the former headmaster’s perhaps – its garden high-walled. I never thought of it as anyone’s property when I used to clamber over the wall to enter the romantic atmosphere of a once cultivated garden grown wild. It was a place of mystery. I peered through the windows, dim with neglect, and perceived strange shapes in the gloom beyond. One day I picked up a stone and broke the largest window. I never enjoyed destruction but my curiosity was so great, I had to. I had to. I got in through the broken pane. The sight that met my eyes was all I could have hoped for. In the middle of the lofty room stood a full-size billiard table beneath which giant toadstools were forcing themselves up through the parquet floor. At the far end there was an organ big enough for a church. Having taken in these wonders, I reached the door into the rest of the house. What adventure lay before me! There was a long corridor with doors, some half opened, leading from it. It was full of shadows. Silent. Waiting. Alas, I was seized by sudden fear. I turned and fled back through the broken window, into the garden, over the wall into familiar territory.
Some days later my grandmother called me into her presence.
‘Someone broke a window in that house at the end,’ she said, looking me straight in the eye. ‘Now tell me the truth, was it you?’
I am ashamed to record that I looked her straight back in the eye and answered ‘No’.
She may well have doubted my word but she did not say so. Granny comes out of the story better than I do, I fear.
I went back to the Ursuline Convent for the next two and a half years, sometimes as a day pupil, sometimes as a full weekly boarder, or, if there was for instance a measles scare in Westward Ho!, even during the holidays.
In those days there were still horse brakes plying between Westward Ho! and Bideford. The bus would stop to pick me up and often the driver would let me climb up beside him. How exhilarating it was to sit so high up and clatter along the highways. I had not thought my grandmother would mind, but one day she saw me out of her window as I stepped off the wall onto the ‘box’. She was shocked at such unladylike behaviour, so that was the end of that. Inside the brake it was stuffy and one was squashed between stout Devon ladies with huge marketing baskets.
A Belgian family of four, the Van de Wattyns, were deposited at the Convent as refugees by parents who must have grieved for them as bitterly as the Anglo-Indian mothers and fathers did for their children left at home. The Belgian children were Jeanne, Fernande, Joseph and ‘Mouche’, now the youngest pupil and nun’s pet.
Fernande, my special friend, a little older than me, must have been very intelligent, for after a year or so she not only understood English well enough to read the works of Rider Haggard, but would tell them to me as serials during the walks in crocodile formation that the boarders took along the nearby country lanes. How impossible that would be today with motor cars continually whizzing by.
‘Will you walk with me?’ we pupils would ask of the desired partner. So of course, breathless for the next instalment, I asked Fernande. Years later I read She and King Solomon’s Mines myself, and I don’t believe she had left out anything essential.
For their own summer relaxation the nuns would promenade up and down a tree-shaded avenue in the grounds, their hands tucked into the opposite sleeves. Four abreast, each rank facing the next one so that they could converse, they were necessarily led in either direction by four nuns walking backwards. I wondered if they were guided by the next row of four who faced forwards: ‘A little to the left, Mother,’ or ‘Reverse direction!’
Many of their institutions were noticeably French, especially the weekly ‘preem-giving’; I don’t think any of us connected the name with the French word prîme (prize). Preems were small printed sheets of paper coloured pink, yellow, blue or white, the date and the recipient’s name filled in by hand. The pink preems, marked ‘Very good’, were issued only to exceptional pupils; the yellow (Good) and the blue (Fairly good, meaning mediocre) went to the average pupils, while the white preems – they should have been black with white lettering, but no doubt the printing cost would have been too high – were a lasting disgrace to those who received them. I think I got two in my whole school career, though for what heinous crimes I cannot remember, and about the same number of pink preems, though the marks for one of the latter were lightly cooked to please my father who was coming on leave, and who could not have cared less if it had been purple with green stripes. To receive these awards we wore gloves – yes, gloves – and processed into the long room created by removing the class partitions.
Sitting in one of those classrooms we were, on one occasion, allowed to look at a huge book of illustrations by Gustave Doré, showing the progress of the human heart. In the first picture the outlined heart was completely pure and innocent, inhabited only by doves and lambs. But, alas, on the next page faults began to creep in. As the pages turned, more and more vices appeared: anger, avarice, pride, greed and so on, symbolised by animals, such as the tiger for anger, the pig for greed, the lion for pride. The presiding nun allotted one of these sins to each child. How I longed for the lion! I was greatly attached to lions and thought pride quite a romantic sounding vice anyway, so was delighted when I was actually assigned that animal, though how my pride manifested itself at eight years old I cannot imagine.
I do not think the nuns tried to convert me, but naturally, being so long in that atmosphere, I was very much influenced by their rather simple version of Catholicism. As a great privilege I was allowed (gloved, of course) to scatter rose petals during the Corpus Christi procession through the garden and even, on the occasion of some winter festival, when a procession bearing candles wound its way towards the chapel in the old part of the house, to peer through the railings of the gallery and let off pastel-coloured magnesium flares. The picture remains with me of the advancing candles below in the dark hall casting flickering shadows on the high ceiling while, every now and then from the gallery above, a nun and I held out the dazzling, fizzing, pink and green flares.
One day I found myself alone in that hall. God is present, I had been told, in the Host in that little cupboard over the altar. If I crept into the Chapel and touched it I would have actually touched God. Thank goodness I resisted the idea, for I doubt if any nun catching me would have understood the purely reverent motive of my sacrilegious action.
In some ways the nuns were very understanding. For instance, when I got bored with copying lines from a dull book as my writing lesson, and branched out into a romantic historical novel, they let me get on with it. I was enthralled with the medieval knights of Tennyson’s Morte d’Arthur and not uninfluenced by the works of Walter Scott. The nuns calmly marked it for the penmanship only, which tended to grow rather erratic in the exciting bits. Perhaps they permitted it for the sake of the unintended laughs it must have caused.
Even in the heat of battle – Crash! Clang! – my hero would find breath to shout to his opponent, ‘Seeest thou not, rash knight, that Death hoverest o’er thee, and perhaps – though not likely – o’er me too?’ Eventually that opponent would become his closest friend. And shortly afterwards ‘the lovely Ellen’, whose ‘eyelashes and eyebrows hung over her dark eyes’, proved to be a heartless poisoner.
I can just recall when the classroom nun told us the news of the first (October) Russian Revolution, when the moderate Kerensky came very temporarily to power. The revolution, she explained, was a ‘good thing’, for the Tsars had been tyrants and the peasants sorely oppressed. I have little doubt that the nuns changed their verdict later on.
I must not give the impression that all was cosiness and sympathy at the Convent. On the coldest mornings, the boarders often had to crack the icy film on the little ewers that stood in a row of twelve, each in its small basin, in the washing room.
And then there was the affair of the tough meat. I had never been able to swallow tough meat, but was scolded when I discreetly returned the repulsive morsel to my plate. I could not get it down, so what to do? Next time, I concealed it in my table napkin. When that, too, was discovered, I took it with me into the garden, dropped it there, and thought no more about it.
I had to spend part of the next holidays at the Convent in the company of the Van de Wattyns for some reason. At the end of that period we were all invited into the Studio, where Mother St Geneviève (secretly dubbed Mother St. Foxy Face, for she closely resembled Voltaire) gave drawing lessons. On a tray stood tantalising little parcels, ready to be ceremonially presented to us children.
‘This is for Jeanne.’
‘Now it’s Fernande’s turn.’
It will be my turn now, I reckoned happily, because I am next in age. But, no, now Joseph and Mouche got their presents. Now for mine, I thought, my heart beating with excitement.
‘Olive gets no present because she has been so naughty.’
Naughty? My conscience felt quite clear. Tears welled.
‘Why? What did I do?’
‘You hid pieces of meat in your napkin!’
The sense of injustice and disappointment are with me yet, and still I cannot swallow tough meat.
I longed for a pet. Shortly before term ended I noticed a somnolent clothes moth in my locker and decided it might fill the gap. Moths fed on fabrics, didn’t they? So I transferred it to a little pile of handkerchiefs that should, I reckoned, keep it well-nourished for some time. Daily I inspected it anxiously. Might it be beginning to love me? It stayed for several days, but when I went to carry it home for the holidays it had disappeared.
I did not know it, but I was never to return to the Convent.
These were the Easter holidays of 1917. I was in Devon and playing with a neighbour’s small son in their garden when we were summoned into the house. There, the semi-circle of grave adults filled me with apprehension. I must have done something very bad.
‘I am very sorry to tell you, Olive, that your father has been killed in the War.’
They led me, weeping, to my grandmother’s house. Even amid the grief I was conscious that Granny was not unnaturally annoyed that the neighbour had broken the news to me.
For years after the blow had fallen I continued to miss the presence of a father. I could not watch any realistic representation of the War, such as the film Battle of the Somme, without tears in my eyes and real pain and revulsion in my heart.
(from Chapters 6 and 7: summer 1921 and 1922)
There was a heatwave summer in England in 1921, which I spent partly in Cornwall and partly with our grandmother. Westward Ho! holidays had become a greater delight than ever, now that I was in my teens.
The chief joy of teenagers is normally to be among contemporaries, except at school of course. They know so much more than one’s elders. The Westward Ho! families mostly had children or grandchildren of that age. Devon front doors were never closed during the daytime and telephones were scarce, so these young people often called in to ask whether we could come swimming or play tennis or golf or just go for a walk.
One of my most insistent ‘gentleman callers’ was a tall, handsome boy of my own age called Miles Watts. I was not at all enamoured of him but it was pleasant to have him as an escort.
In winter there were paper chases in which two or three ‘hares’ had a ten-minute start and dashed ahead across fields, along lanes, through woods, strewing little pieces of paper as clues or false litter trails (litter that soon dissolved). The ‘hounds’ (the rest of the field) followed, trying to catch their quarry within a given time limit and before it reached safety.
Best of all were the dances, carefully organised by our elders no doubt, but we gave little thought to that.
For a modest subscription the shabby old school gymnasium was hired. Refreshments were provided by a committee, and Mary Prior, the village music teacher, played the piano until later she was superseded by a wind-up gramophone. Sometimes we performed Sir Roger de Coverley or the Lancers. I could never quite master the latter. (‘No, no. Into the centre and then the grand chain!’) There were also waltzes, polkas, one-steps and foxtrots.
Most of us knew each other, but there were often visitors too, introduced to the rest by the chaperones, though we never thought of them by that name. The affair was, indeed, conducted along lines already obsolete in more sophisticated parts of the land. The dancers ranged in age from fourteen to early twenties and included midshipmen and army cadets in their smart, short-jacketed dress uniforms, as well as young officers on leave. Romances blossomed.
We had little programmes with pencils attached, so that would-be partners could book dances in advance: ‘Can you let me have the second waltz?’ ‘I’m afraid I’m engaged for that. Would the third foxtrot do?’
For a popular girl it was much more exciting than a balanced party of four or six. Would she fill her programme? Whom would she meet? Who would ask her for the supper dance?
For the wallflower, on the other hand, it was agony. There she sat along the side of the room, disguising her eagerness to dance. A young man might advance in her direction, but was he intending to ask her or the girl sitting beside her? She would try to look as if she did not care. I experienced both situations in my time. […] I had no illusions of grandeur but remember those dances as very delightful.
Summer 1922 in Westward Ho!
Once, after one of those wonderful village dances, Granny announced, ‘I hear you danced with Dick Pearce. His family keep a small hotel, you know. If you dance with him, no one else will dance with you.’ (Would it have been different if it had been the Ritz?)
I was in a dilemma, as not only was he a very nice young man, but I knew her supposition was quite wrong. (How glad I was when shortly afterwards his sister married into the local County family!)
However, there were no more dances that season and by the next year Granny had fulfilled a long-standing ambition by leaving Hereward House and moving to a flat in London.
Before that, however, she had put her foot down on another pleasure. My faithful Westward Ho! suitor, Miles Watts, had invited me to join a party attending the Devon Otter Hunt Ball in Barnstaple. Oblivious to the poor otters, it sounded to me like a dream come true.
‘No,’ said Granny, ‘you are too young.’ I pleaded with her in vain and she even offered me a ten-shilling note as consolation. But I would much, much rather have gone to the ball.
 Certainly 1912, possibly early 1913 as well.
 Mrs Sarah Harvey-James, 1851–1923.
 Mrs Ellen Harvey-James, née Finch.
 Basil Harvey-James, 24 December 1904–20 June 1940.
 The ?Stella Maris Catholic Convent School (?now part of the Kingsley School, Bideford).
 Olive Ordish’s parents separated at some point in 1912; these domestic difficulties may explain why she was sent away to stay for a while with her paternal grandmother at Westward Ho!
 Arthur Keedwell Harvey-James, 1875–1917. Actor, author and playwright under the name Arthur Scott Craven.
 Meliora Louisa Harvey-James, née Milner, 1875-1944.
 Now Kipling Terrace.
 May (Mary) 1851–1933; married (Sir) Robert Crosthwaite.
 Stephen Harvey-James 1849–97. (Passed first into the Indian Civil Service. Became a judge, a member of Her Majesty’s Council and Secretary for Law to the Government of India.)
 Could this have been what is nowadays Lakenham Residential Home?
 St Margaret’s Church, Northam.
 Presumably 1923.