Sunday 3 January 2016

A memory in a song . . .

It was a Monday morning.  We were all in class, waiting for the exciting moment when our teacher, Mrs Attwood, would turn on the radio for the Folk Music session.  The “radio” was a square of hardboard painted dark battleship grey, with a dull brassy wire mesh circle in the centre, which covered the speaker.  It was at the right hand side of the blackboard at the front of the class.  All eyes were on it – it was the highlight of the week to listen to the wonderful music and the BBC presenter with his wonderful clipped diction.  We were expected to sing the songs we heard that day, and to learn certain ones off by heart.

To the left of our desks was a long table, bedecked with an array of items from the natural world.  This was our Nature Study table.  We had been asked to bring in as many things which represented Autumn as we could find and we were going to have a quick Nature Study lesson before it was time for our radio programme.  There were handfuls of leaves from a variety of local trees, mostly brown, but some of more colourful hue, especially the Dogwood leaves which some bright spark had pilfered from the shrubs that were planted in a grassy corner beyond the playground.  There were Acorns, Beech Mast, pine cones of varying sizes, a bird’s feather (someone thought that birds moulted in Autumn and was later disabused of this notion by Mrs Attwood).  There were various hard-to-identify brown fungi, and a box which my best friend Trish and I had brought in, but was as yet unopened.  It contained an amazing selection of fungi of various colours and shapes, including a Birch Boletus, which we had found growing on a fallen branch amongst the copse beside the old Roman Road at Thornhill.  We had found a pretty lilac fungus (an Amethyst Deceiver), and a crimson Fly Agaric, tiny Scarlet Elf Caps and something which looked like no other fungus we had ever seen and smelt disgusting.  It was a Stinkhorn, and earned its name.  If we ever had revenge on Mrs Attwood for her form of discipline (slapping us on the back of the leg if we didn’t get the fraction line on the line in the book, amongst other crimes), then we got it when she bent over that box and removed the lid!  I have never seen anyone move so fast – with a shriek, she leapt to the window and threw it open, and threw our wonderful Stinkhorn in the sink, finally covering it again with the now-emptied box and shouting angrily about the stench!  The entire class erupted into laughter and Mrs Attwood’s face got very red, and her horn rimmed spectacles sat awry on her face for a moment.  She yelled at us to SHUT UP, but there was still uproar and desperate measures were called for – she yanked the radio up and threatened us with NO PROGRAMME that week, instead we would do lines.  The hilarity subsided fairly swiftly then and only when she had us writing “We must not laugh in class” over and over with the scratchy bent-nibbed school pens, did she calm down and tell us that she would consider letting us listen to the radio after all. 

We sat, obedient, scratching scabby knees surrepticiously beneath the desk, and pulling up slipping socks, whilst the boys (who were never subdued for long) rolled up bits of inky blotting paper ready to throw at the girls should Mrs Attwood’s attention slacken.  The programme began, and I shall never forget the song which opened it till the end of my days: it was Kathleen Ferrier singing “Blow the Wind Southerly”.  There was silence in the room, and Mrs Attwood sat down to enjoy the song with us. 

Following on from that were a selection of regional Folk Songs, which we had to accompany.  However, there was one where we just could not seem to all hit the right note.  We had to repeat it and repeat it, whilst Mrs Attwood got increasingly angry, thinking (probably quite rightly!) that some of the boys were deliberately singing out of tune.  She turned the radio off in a temper, picked up the blackboard rubber and hurled it towards the group of probable-offenders.  Her anger earlier on was a pale imitation of how she yelled at us now.  We were back to doing lines – much longer ones this time – whilst she stalked around the room in her tartan skirt and knitted yellow jumper, a ruler in one hand ready to rap anyone across the knuckles if she found them slacking in their task.

                I can’t remember the name of that Folk Song, but I can say that these programmes gave me a deep and abiding love of folk music, and that when I heard Kathleen Ferrier on the radio this morning, singing “Blow the Wind Southerly” this morning, I just had to get this memory down . . .

P.S.  Thanks to Sue in Suffolk, I have got a name for this programme: "Singing Together".  I can remember singing the Skye Boat Song, Cockles and Mussels, Dashing Away With the Smoothing Iron, Danny Boy, Down by the Sally Gardens and many others which will come to mind when my head isn't full of a cold.  I thought it was Thursday, but it was on a Monday (so I have altered it), which makes more sense as we would have gone on our Fungi Foray for the wildlife table the previous weekend.  My research shows me that Jarvis Cocker remembered it too, which is a double oddball moment as I am distantly related to him on my mum's side when a branch of her family went up to Sheffield.   


  1. I too remember my reaction the first time I heard Blow the Wind Southerly. I had never heard anything like that song, that voice. The memory is connected with my school teacher too. Maybe I first heard it on the very same BBC programme you did.
    Thanks for the memory!

  2. We used to listen to a programme called 'Singing Together' through that I know all the old fashioned songs like the one you said and Shenandoah, Raggle Taggle Gipsys etc. We loved that programme - at the end of every term we used to vote for our favourite song and eagerly awaited hearing if we were right..... simple pleasures.

  3. I am so glad you have got this memory down, too, because it's a lovely read. Thank you! I too remember the first time I heard Kathleen Ferrier singing this song - as a very young contralto I was well aware that sopranos had all the glamour, then I heard Kathleen and realised that being a contralto wasn't such a bad thing.

  4. Goodness me! What a walk down memory lane - all those folk songs I loved but haven't heard for decades - I loved music at school, and singing (although I'm completely flat as a board) was a real pleasure too.

  5. What a beautiful memory, I could almost have been with you and felt the energy in that room. Wonderful writing :D xxx

  6. I too was singing along with Singing Together, in my junior school classroom not too far away from your own.

    I loved the songs and can still remember so many of them. Your post brought back my own childhood classroom and so many memories!

  7. I used to love Singing Together at school too. It's amazing how many songs I learned from those programmes and it's infant equivalent Time and Tune. My village school in the Cotswolds had two teachers for the two age groups - my mother taught the infants (keeping them until they could read and write no matter what their actual age) and the Headmistress the juniors. Thankfully neither teacher got angry and threw things and I don't remember rowdy boys but no child would have dared cross either of them. My mother had the habit of threatening to shoot someone if they continued doing something they shouldn't. I recently met up with the great great grandson of Prime Minister Asquith (who also had Peter Scott as his maternal grandfather) who is now a GP in NZ. He confided that my mother's words terrified him at the age of 6 as he thought she would carry out her threat! Luckily my mother couldn't handle a gun and left the shooting to my father who is still very proficient at 87.