Impressions

So much of my poetry is rooted in my childhood experience, and motivated by an effort to bring my experiences of this remarkable city to life. Impressions of that past float up into my mind regularly, fragments of a past, and visions of people, both long gone – but preserved, I hope, in my poems. What follows are some of these impressions and some of my reflections on them. I hope they have both the vividness and the strangeness of memory: how much our pasts sometimes feel like dreams in that curious combination.

Mornings regularly spring to mind. How different family life was back in my childhood, and how much more were we together and connected in those times before mobile phones and other distractions:

It's strange, isn't it, how easily the past comes to mind, and how vivid the images are? For anyone like me who experienced a post-war childhood, many of the details will feel familiar:

I have never understood why people say they don’t like writing letters, because I loved writing from a young age. I enjoyed reading, and a walk to the Carnegie Library in Fratton where I grew up was a weekly treat. Mum and Dad were readers and had good vocabularies. Mum corrected my grammar frequently.

 

Dad

My father, Joe, was of medium height and always wore glasses. He had been captured in Crete during the war and spent three years in a prison camp, but rarely spoke about it. For a while he worked at the grocery store of the Co-op – we were very much a Co-op family. The Portsmouth branch had the highest dividend in the country – one shilling and nine pence. Then he became an insurance agent, a job for which he wasn’t at all suited as he wasn’t in the least pushy.

Nan and Grandad

I had a wonderful maternal grandmother, Ethel, who spoilt me rotten. She was large, and always wore a flowered wrap-around pinafore in a small colourful pattern. To this day, I am still drawn to this fabric design. She swore a lot, without malice, in her rich Suffolk accent, and appears in some of my poems:

Sometimes we were giddy up in The Gods

and the stairs must have been

a breathy struggle for Nan,

vast in her fifties under the loose grey coat.

This is a memory of when she took me to the Kings Theatre every year for the pantomime. I still remember the pleasure she felt at the occasion:

Nan's arm went like a piston

into our shilling quarter of toffees

and she still had room for a Walls vanilla tub.

‘Where Nan Lived’ tries to capture her in her own domain, the house (destroyed to make way for Waitrose) in Lennox Road North, but that poem is also an evocation of Marmion Road and environs of decades past.

My grandfather Tom died when I was young. He took me on regular Sunday walks, and I remember him very fondly.

Mum

My mother Joan, a full-time housewife who later worked for some years in a school kitchen, was self-effacing to a fault. She was embarrassed about her prominent nose and slim until middle age, probably because she was energetic in doing housework, hand-washing our clothes and walking everywhere with a pram. She was a hard-working housekeeper, cook and a ‘good manager’, the highest praise in those days.

Alan Bennett, a favourite writer of mine, says that a happy childhood gives you nothing to write about. He has found plentiful material in his, and so have I. It was a perfectly ordinary working-class childhood and my parents were enlightened and tolerant. My father gave me a love of music; from my mother I inherited an irreverent sense of humour shared with my younger sister. They took me to the theatre in London and to Navy Days at the Dockyard. The poem ‘Dinnertime’, by the way, attempts to capture the vividness, vibrancy, and noise of the dockyards of the 50s and 60s.

School

Like many other kids of my generation,] I failed the 11 plus, an exam that was very divisive and that often had long-term impacts on people’s careers and life-choices. We weren’t given the chance, for example, to take GCEs. All the same, at Kingston Modern (now Portsmouth Academy) we were taught French for a while, a novelty in secondary modern schools back then, and taken to concerts at the Guildhall, where we saw famous soloists. Visiting Paris with the school (at a cost of £28, at the time a princely sum), I acquired a French penfriend who I wrote to for fifty years until she died.

At fourteen, in competition with girls from all over Portsmouth, I passed an exam that enabled me to learn shorthand and typing. It meant I would have, in the phrase of the day, ‘Something to fall back on’, and more options than shop or factory work. Besides, secretarial work was well paid at the time. 

Possibly because of the war, there were many single female teachers at Kingston Modern. Some were distinctly odd and appear in my poems, though I expect most children see some of their teachers as eccentric. One smacked me merely for using paint instead of crayon on a map. Another was rumoured to keep a bottle of gin in her handbag. My English and Music teachers were excellent, I now realise. A beady eye and good memory have provided me with a lot of detail from my childhood and education.

Work

When I left at sixteen to start work, offices were full of characters who fascinated me, and I entertained my parents with their sayings and exploits. 

These jobs gave me friends I am still in contact with in my seventies. In 1998 at the suggestion of a work colleague I went to a creative writing class at an arts centre in Winchester. Three good tutors taught me a great deal and I began to be published in poetry magazines and placed in competitions a year later. I am a founding member of the North Hampshire Stanza Group and attend meetings of Winchester Muse. I have read at the latter’s meetings and Winchester Poetry Festival events. I belong to Second Light, an organisation for older women poets, and have been to their workshops and residential courses.

Poetry has been a late means of self-expression and has brought me a sense of achievement – and many friends.


Lynda O’Neill is an important poet whose work is in part a repository of Portsmouth’s literary, cultural, and historical identities. Further information on Lynda’s life and work can be found on the Portsmouth Literary Map.

Mum would be ‘up and doing’ early. The Home Service buzzed downstairs as she lit the fire with newspaper, perhaps singing ‘Little things mean a lot’. I would smell breakfast and sprint across the icy flower-patterned lino, wash in the cold bathroom, get dressed. Maybe I would put on the red cable twinset Nan had knitted in loose stitches or a corduroy skirt Mum had run upon the Singer sewing machine that produced pink party dresses, hand-smocked on the bodice, as well as curtains and furniture covers. In my teenage years, which she later told me were her favourite part of my childhood because ‘you made me laugh a lot’, she would make me Mary Quant dresses of some complexity. This does her credit as I was often a sulky teenager.
Lynda O'Neill, ('Pompey Chimes' Best of British magazine, January 2005)