Where was I? Oh, yes, Cumberlow Lodge, South Norwood. Politely described as a ‘children’s home’ – no doubt to honour the strictures of the will of the Victorian philanthropist, W E Stanley, who had left his much loved home to the government for use as a ‘children’s home’. It was a detention centre, adapted to the needs of the burgeoning new fangled Social Services who were trying out their theories that the State was better equipped to care for children than ordinary people. Even the good people of South Norwood complained bitterly when it became home to Mary Bell in later years. Those of us who were there sent up daily prayers that it would disappear from the face of the earth – our prayers were not answered until 2006 when a developer blew the site off the map of South Norwood one dark night before the listed buildings people could stop him covering it in ‘affordable homes’.
It was huge, my memory fails me but I would say probably 50 to 60 girls were there at any one time. Drawn from all over London and all walks of life – please don’t imagine that Mary Bell became famous because truly evil children were a new phenomena, they existed long before Mary’s time. I was utterly terrified of most of them, particularly Bernadette, who had greeted my arrival by whacking me over the head with a bounders bat for no other reason than that I sounded ‘posh’. A fledgling labour voter no doubt. Luckily she didn’t actually crack my skull, but I had an egg shaped lump on top of my head for months afterwards – probably accounts for a lot!
I don’t remember any of the staff, no terrible tales of deprivation to relate – but I remember well the frequent fights between the girls who were streetwise way beyond my years. Many of them had grown up in rough and tough parts of inner London and had experienced a life I couldn’t begin to understand. The violence scared me witless, and I took to sitting right at the back of the dinning room, back to the wall, with a girl called Agnes. Fat, frumpy, Agnes, she and I were the outcasts. And Sadie, an Indian girl – another crime in the eyes of the multitude. The three of us barely dared to exchange a word in case our conversation offended someone.
One night, over dinner, another fight started. They seemed to find it fun, they all joined in. Plates, food, then chairs, tables, flew through the air. Windows shattered, and the staff did what they always did, ran out the room locking the door behind them. I can’t blame them. I would have done the same if I could, but I was behind an upturned table with Sadie and Agnes. We cowered in silence listening to the screams as hair was pulled, skulls cracked, old grievances dealt with – eventually all was quiet. One of us, I forget who, peeped over the top of the table and gazed in awe. To say the room was a wreck was an understatement – there wasn’t an unbroken item in sight, nor another girl. The net curtains over huge Victorian glazed windows billowed in the breeze – they’d gone. The whole lot of them. Every last one of them. Probably close on 50 girls haring down Chalfont Road.
I don’t think we discussed the matter, we all seemed to have sussed independently that when they reopened that locked door, we would be the only ones left to bear the brunt of the collective staff ire. Trouble was, we had no more positive view of our chances if we ran after our youthful tormentors. Amazingly it was fat Agnes who came up with a solution; she was a local girl. Not Chalfont Road, but the opposite direction! Smart thinking Agnes – but you forgot something. That other essential accouterment of the Victorian philanthropist – a tennis court. A tennis court surrounded by 12′ high wire fencing. I don’t suppose you have ever tried to traverse a tennis court without opening the doors. Agnes didn’t make it as far as the wire, ran out of puff long before and was lagging behind. Sadie got there first and her nimble size 3s soon found purchase in the diamond wire pattern. Ms Raccoon’s size 8s didn’t quite fit the bill. I could only just get a toe hold it took me an age stuck up high to figure out how to cross from one side to the other and let myself down – and I still had to get over the other side! Sadie had no patience with me and was gone, and after what seemed an hour or more but was probably ten minutes, I finally made it only to find a seemingly impenetrable hedge in front of me. Sheer adrenaline forced me through that hedge. I emerged into God knows what street, only to see Agnes sauntering down the road without a care in the world. She might have been fat and frumpy, but she wasn’t stupid. Realising that she had no chance of emulating our athletics, she had turned back and merely wandered down the main drive and turned left instead of right…
‘Running’ was becoming a habit for me, an obsessive one at that. Unlike the other runaways though, I had nowhere to run to; no forbidden boyfriend to make contact with, no circle of druggie friends to fall back in with; no pimp waiting to put me back to work. My peripatetic lifestyle before all this started; a new school virtually every year, years in hospital, parents moving round the globe -I simply hadn’t known anyone for longer than a few months anywhere. The various people my Father parked me with in the school holidays were merely figures at the ends of a long drive, I had no more idea of where they lived than I do of Cameron’s address. Joss was out of the question, I knew that was the first place they would look for me. I became Agnes’s best, if unwelcome, friend. I stuck to her like a limpet. Whatever she had planned, so did I.
Agnes’s plans were interesting, I’ll give her that. They started with a trip on a fish lorry to the outer wastes of Suffolk, where we took up residence in a dingy hotel. Free bed and board in return for all the washing up. After a week or so, fish lorry returned for us and dumped us in Lowestoft. There we found ourselves usefully employed in straightening out lengths of copper wire. It was beginning to dawn on me that Agnes was related to all these people, and that possibly, probably, they weren’t the best people to throw my lot in with. When the fish lorry came to collect us yet again and installed us in a dank caravan surrounded by other dank caravans, I decided that a moonlit walk was just what I needed – and I kept right on walking. Like I said, it was becoming a habit. I do wonder what became of Agnes, and searched all the faces in the Dale’s Farm drama for sign of her…
More hitchhiking, and Ms Raccoon can be found sitting on a park bench outside Hampstead tube station. Next to me, a small dark haired lady of continental appearance seemed fascinated by me. Evantia Turner, bless her long-dead cotton socks. ‘Did I live round here’ she enquired. ‘Oh yes’, saith I, not quite the rigorous observer of the truth that I became. ‘Chambermaid in a hotel over there’ upgrading my washer-upper status and moving the hotel several hundred miles with one airy wave of my hand. ‘Do you like it’ said Evantia. ‘Nope, quit this morning’. ‘You’ll be looking for somewhere to live then’? ‘Mmn’, (and a hot meal, and a bath, and if you could throw in a good nights sleep as well Missus!)
So it was that I became au-pair to Paul and Evantia Turner, two of the best people that ever walked this earth. Both university lecturers, they were used to young people and decidedly bohemian in their lifestyle. I later learned that it had taken Evantia one glance at my matted hair, the stench of fish clinging to me, and my half starved appearance to figure out that this was no chambermaid – that and the fact that there was no hotel ‘over there’…she knew a runaway when she saw one.
Between her and Paul, and several evenings over the dinner table in their wonderful hampstead house, they got the truth out of me. They declared that they were going to sort ‘this’ out for me. Paul rented a room for me in Olympia, and every day they would bring me food; every day they were in negotiations with the authorities. Hence the move to Olympia – they would reveal my whereabouts to the authorities just as soon as they had acquired ‘safe passage’ for me. I could live with them and continue my education. They were prepared to pay my school fees to return to my old boarding school and if necessary they would formally adopt me. I could weep now when I think of them, what an almighty magnanimous offer to a girl who was a total stranger to them.
Eventually the day came when all the plans were agreed, and as promised, Paul delivered me to Hampstead police station – I would have to go to court one last time to regularise things. I went to court, Paul and Evantia stood there smiling encouragingly at me – and lo and behold the magistrates had had a letter from my Father! Utterly outraged that anyone would suggest adopting his daughter…
The magistrates could see the sense of Paul and Evantia’s plan though, and although he couldn’t possibly release me into their care given my father’s opposition, there was something he could do. The State, the great and glorious State, the domain of all those newly qualified social scientists, had not long ago set up a special boarding school for girls such as I. I would be able to continue my education, Paul and Evantia could visit me, all the world was my oyster…
It was called Duncroft, I could go there straight away, that very afternoon…in the event, I didn’t get there until 3 days later. My fifteenth birthday. June 1st 1963.
FrankieOctober 23, 2012 at 20:16
I don’t normally swear but… oh shit! I kind of know where this account is going and I am not sure I want to go there…
jonseerOctober 23, 2012 at 16:46
Dripping with interest, as always Anna. When is the next epistle ?
Anna RaccoonOctober 23, 2012 at 17:04
Busy writing it right now jonseer, slight hiatus since it is my wedding anniversary today – 20 years that man has put up with me, and celebrations came first. Now, back to the grindstone….
macheathOctober 23, 2012 at 17:20
I am sure that it won’t be just me
And that everyone here will agree
To drink a large toast
To our much-beloved host
And her staunch right-hand-man, Mr G.
Cheers and congratulations to you both!
Anna RaccoonOctober 23, 2012 at 17:32
Thank you Macheath – you will appreciate when I say we just spent a marvellous evening in Bordeaux, wonderful wander through the Saint Pierre as dusk fell, aperitifs opposite the Mirriore, excellent restaurant, – truly glorious. A fitting celebration!
MudpluggerOctober 23, 2012 at 20:41
Seconding that fellow macheath’s sentiments. Well deserved.
Tom PaineOctober 23, 2012 at 05:15
I am following, fascinated. I normally try to focus on peoples’ ideas, rather then who they are or where they or from, but your story is interesting in itself. Wherever it leads, I hope no-one uses it to contextualise your opinions.
macheathOctober 23, 2012 at 11:25
Anna RaccoonOctober 23, 2012 at 15:41
There will be some who will Tom – I am sure of that, and the Internet will be littered with false quotes and quotes taken out of context, but I have reached a state of life and health where I believe that the truth is more important than worrying about people with dark agendas. I am one of the few who can bring out the truth and I intend to do so. To Hell with the consequences.
Edna FletcherOctober 23, 2012 at 16:40
Bob Dylan’s Like a Rolling Stone phrase come to mind ” when you have nothing you have nothing to loose”…
I also noted on the news there seems to be a problem with children around the age of 12 ‘self harming’ and professionals and others having no idea how to help them. Makes one wonder about child protection / care.
GildasTheMonkOctober 22, 2012 at 22:10
I suspect what is coming next is even more compelling
“Mystic Gildas” .
Fred ThrungOctober 23, 2012 at 00:42
“mystic”? You’ve never been mystic before – just intelligent and cerebral and interesting.
GildasTheMonkOctober 23, 2012 at 08:17
Why, thank you, Fred!
Gloria SmuddOctober 22, 2012 at 16:49
This Smudd is on the edge of her seat in breathless anticipation of the next episode … don’t let your fingers leave those keys until you’ve done the next installment please, Mme R!
MudpluggerOctober 22, 2012 at 13:04
That’s an Eastenders-ending ‘duff, duff, duff, duff’ moment if ever there was one – what a vixen you are, leaving us all hanging with the topical name ‘Duncroft’ to tease us for the next episode. Will there be a compilation edition at the weekend ?
Stay with it, Anna – we shall.
Dick the PrickOctober 22, 2012 at 13:53
If you google Duncroft, not wanting to engage in any spoiler alerts (and also considering it’s infinitely better written than Homeland ‘hiya, i’m a terrorist, haven’t got any bombs have ya?’) then i’m assuming, perhaps both unfairly and unwisely, that we’re going to walk into a macabre and labyrinthine recantation of covert, complicit, institutional, professional and political cover up of disgraceful and acknowledged abuse that when extrapolated to all localities that we each individually know of will have us viewing the state of Blighty as a Belgian brothel. Although, as Evan Davis said on Radio 4 on day 2 of the Savile story ‘well, people used to drink whiskey in their offices and it was all a long time ago’ – so, that’s alrighty then – hurrah!
Single Acts of TyrannyOctober 23, 2012 at 05:49
“people used to drink whiskey in their offices and it was all a long time ago”
Raccoon readers are welcome to stop by my office and enjoy a glass of Jura if they are passing.
Dick the PrickOctober 23, 2012 at 10:12
OOOhhh, I was offended – as if offering someone a fine tipple has anything at all to do with kiddy tampering, as if they were anywhere vaguely approaching the same league – hell, they shouldn’t even be in the same sentence let alone the same consideration.
“Fancy a whisky Terry?”
“Er, no, no thanks, I won’t, have to drive to the supermarket in a bit. But i’ve got time time for a quick tamper.”
“No worries dude, clamber on.”
I’ve often said that Rd 4 Today is the best alarm clock that money can buy as you go from sleepy to furious in a millisecond but FFS, they ‘even drank whisley too’ has got to be one of the most dismissively insouciant pearls of contemptuous drivel that’s been uttered in a long time.
macheathOctober 23, 2012 at 11:24
sleepy to furious in a millisecond
Hits the nail squarely on the head – I’m glad I’m not the only one. (It’s also bad luck for the Spouse, who is then subjected to an irate rant until my self-control kicks in).
Once properly awake, I try to be fair to them – they have, after all, been awake since the crap of dawn – but the whisky remark is a particularly egregious example of an all-too-common phenomenon.
BrianOctober 23, 2012 at 16:40
It’s the platitudinous interfaith dogma of “Thought” For The Day that gets me up and away from the radio during the week and the Sunday service at 8:10 – why does that have to be on FM when the daily service is quite happily on longwave?
Woman on a RaftOctober 23, 2012 at 10:28
Single Acts of TyrannyOctober 23, 2012 at 05:50
I have to agree with MP, this is most interesting indeed, compelling.