Extracts from Chapter 3
I was just eighteen when I stepped out from a happy and privileged, but very sheltered and restricted, childhood into “the big wide world”. I entered adulthood as a shy young person, a mixture of maturity and naivety.
Having grown up with a younger brother who talked so much, I was much more used to sitting quietly in the background and not contributing to conversations. The story is sometimes told of how Adoniya Tiberondwa, a student at Mbarara High School in the early 1950s, said, on a long journey with us, “Dennis, don’t you ever stop talking?” I had always enjoyed listening to adults talking and chose to sit with them whenever we had visitors rather than go and do my own thing, which must have been quite annoying for my parents who probably wanted freedom to talk without me listening! However, I found it almost impossible to say anything when in a group, a fear which I didn’t begin to overcome until my late thirties. This inability to say anything was probably due to a lack of confidence and self esteem and very little sense of achievement. The reason I quickly fell in love with Roger soon after we met in 1965 was because I felt so valued and appreciated by him and able to talk about anything with him. I also loved being held by his large, but gentle, hands. Having had little contact with boys as a teenager, Roger, whom I met at university, was my first, and only, real ‘boyfriend’. Although David had taken a keen interest in me in my last two years at school, I didn’t like him and rejected his advances, as I did with some of the young men I met in Barbados.
I have always thought of myself as being very plain and unattractive. However, looking back now at photos of me as a teenager and in my twenties, I really don’t think I was as unattractive as I had always thought, even though I wore National Health glasses. But this view of myself certainly affected my confidence and I was always surprised that people, especially boys, took any interest in me.
As a teenager, I took the Children’s Newspaper, an excellent weekly broadsheet paper aimed at young people. It was in this paper that I read about a new organisation which started in 1958 called Voluntary Service Overseas (VSO). It was started to give an educational experience overseas for young people taking a year off between school and university. I was excited by it and cut the article out, keeping it until I could apply in 1962, its fourth year of existence. VSO has now developed and no longer takes school leavers, but only qualified people for longer term placements.
I was accepted by VSO who wanted me to go as soon as I had taken my ‘A’ levels. “We’ve got an ideal placement for you in Sierra Leone if you could go now.” If only!
“I can’t because I have to stay on another term to take the Oxbridge exams.”
There were very few placements available in January, but I was offered Barbados. I left home a week or so after deep snow had started falling on Boxing Day 1962. I missed one of the coldest winters on record – “the big freeze” lasted three months. Not only did lakes and rivers freeze across the country as temperatures fell to minus 22oC, but there was even ice on the sea. Huge ice ‘boulders’ formed on beaches and blizzards caused snowdrifts up to six metres deep. However, it was only about 40cm deep when I left for Barbados.
The flight took twenty hours, touching down at Shannon, Bermuda and Antigua for refuelling. It felt like a flight into freedom, both literally and metaphorically. I stepped off the aeroplane into bright, hot sunshine.
There was still strong racism, or “colour prejudice” as it was called then. White Barbadians would have nothing to do with any ‘coloured’ or mixed-race people, except to use them as servants. Although the term “nigger” was sometimes used, “black” was never used then as it was considered abusive! Fortunately for me, the young English teachers flew in the face of such prejudice, so nearly all the people I got to know outside school were black Barbadians. Racism was so deeply-rooted throughout the whole population that, sadly, even black people who had fairer skins were considered by other black people to be superior to those who were darker. And it was the ambition of black men to marry a girl who was lighter in colour.
One day, I was being driven across the island to Bridgetown. We passed people cutting sugar cane, the main industry on Barbados. “Can we stop, please? I’d like to take a photo.”
When we stopped, the white Planter, who was standing over the men, came up to us.
“Nothing – I just want to take a photo of the men cutting cane.”
He guffawed and said, “I don’t know why you want to take a photo of such ugly people.”
When I got out of the car, they ran away to hide in the cane. He again roared with laughter and said, “I told you. They are running away because they are so ugly.”
I was very upset and angry and left quickly.
I discovered that black Barbadians had a strong dislike of Africans. I think this has changed and they now have a pride in their African roots instead of a feeling of shame which was actually linked with having been slaves rather than being Africans.
Having grown up in such a sheltered environment, with very little contact with boys, I learnt a lot about men and how to keep under control the attentions of some of them when they became uncomfortably close. I have often written about lovely evenings out but that they were occasionally spoilt by unwanted physical attention – one man said, when he couldn’t get his way, that I was the toughest girl he had come across. I even had a proposal from someone I hardly knew and had no feelings for!
I wrote in the diary I kept whilst in Barbados about times of self-doubt. “I couldn’t sleep last night. Things wouldn’t stop going through my mind, and the old doubts about myself came back. Will I ever get to the end of my training successfully? Will I ever make anything of my life? I am so uncertain of myself. (Sehon thinks I have got a great future, bless him!) Then there was the question of religion running through my mind. I suddenly felt just like St Paul did before he was converted. I feel as though I am fighting against it all, but I don’t want to make a fool of myself again by suddenly believing unless I am absolutely certain. ….. I felt so frustrated and restless and, in the end, turned to Brahm’s Violin Concerto, as usual!”
On Ash Wednesday, “I was awakened early by the 5.30am service of the Imposition of Ashes, but I didn’t go. I don’t want to go to anything in which I have to participate. I am an outsider (and very conscious of it) and so the only services I can go to are those in which no participation is required…. There is a psychological need for belief in something greater than oneself, something perfect, as Freud said. Some people believe in God. It may be the right answer, or they may be deceived. We just don’t know which is right because we don’t know enough, and I haven’t the faith to believe, or I don’t want to believe until I’m sure because I don’t want to be deceived.”
Although Ann and Janet invited me to go with them to Sunday Mass, I refused for a long time because it no longer meant anything to me having become an atheist (or at least an agnostic) although I did go to Evensong sometimes, which I enjoyed. The services were taken by priests and students from Codrington College which was run by priests from the Community of the Resurrection in Mirfield, Yorkshire, many of whom I got to know. I used to catch up with my diary and write letters whilst listening to the lovely singing coming out through the open windows.
Towards the end of my time, the singing proved a strong enough attraction and I was persuaded to go to Mass. I felt overwhelmed during Mass by a sense of the presence of God whom I had denied for the past eighteen months! I was also struck by the beauty of the worship and a sense that not only was God somehow present, but the people in the church all knew he was present – the worship seemed so real. Although the Anglo-Catholic style of worship was completely outside my experience, with incense and bells, I was deeply touched by it and the genuineness and sincerity of the congregation. It was a ‘Thomas experience’. When Jesus appeared to his disciples on Easter Sunday evening, Thomas was not with them (John 20:19-29). “The other disciples told him, ‘We have seen the Lord!’ But Thomas said to them, ‘Unless I see the nail marks and put my finger where the nails were, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe it.’” A week later, Jesus appeared again to his disciples – and this time, Thomas was with them. Jesus spoke directly to Thomas and said, “’Put your finger here; see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it into my side. Stop doubting and believe.’” Thomas didn’t actually have any need to touch Jesus – he simply said, “My Lord and my God!” He was overwhelmed by the presence of Jesus although he could presumably still not explain how it was that Jesus, who had been killed on a cross, was not only alive, but able to appear in a room which had the doors locked!
I now had a problem – how was I going to reconcile my intellectual denial of God with my emotional and spiritual experience, especially as I had come to be very suspicious and cynical about religious emotions. I longed to be able to talk it all through with one of the priests, but never plucked up the courage to ask although I did talk to some of the theological students who said they were praying for me. The day I left Barbados, Father Sanford came to see me. “He obviously wanted to say quite a bit to me, but we were thwarted by people coming and going and he only had time to say, ‘Well, young lady, get back to the altar’! He said he hadn’t ‘tackled’ me before because he thought that if I had wanted to talk, I would have come to him. He asked if there was any reason why I shouldn’t [take communion] and said I couldn’t rest betwixt and between.” He never realised how much I had been longing for him to invite me to come and talk!
Whilst in Barbados, my earlier niggling doubts about whether I really wanted to be a doctor became more persistent. I felt drawn to Physics or Philosophy. I had grown up with the idea of being a doctor. Far from anyone questioning me and helping me to think about alternatives, I was actively encouraged in this ambition. Since my place at The London Hospital in Whitechapel had been waiting for me for two years, there was no way I could do anything about changing while I was away in Barbados, so I ended up going to The London (now known as The Royal London Hospital), as planned, on 1st October 1963.
[Whilst a student, I went on international workcamps in Norway and Cardiff, the latter being to run a three week holiday play scheme for children and young people with severe learning difficulties. I also went on two town twinning trips to Germany, including visiting young people in East Berlin in 1965 when it was divided by the infamous Wall.]
We were taken in the coach on a tour around West Berlin. “We visited Plotzensee where Stauffenberg and his followers were executed after attempts on Hitler’s life. There are some lovely parts in the city and many new buildings. We drove along a considerable length of the Wall and along Bernauer Strasse which is a very long road, the shops and houses of which are in East Berlin on one side. Because they come right onto the pavement, there is no room for the Wall, so the barbed wire is continued along the edges of the roofs of the buildings. Because a lot of people tried to escape by jumping out of the windows, these have now all been bricked up and no-one lives in the buildings. They look really depressing…. We saw an East German soldier on the top of a low, flat roof, and two looking out of a window. The East Germans have put up huge boards facing into the West with propaganda on them. Likewise, the West have boards facing into the East saying, ‘Perhaps someday you will be able to return to your homeland.’ In many places, ‘KZ’ (ie: Concentration Camp) had been painted on the West side of the Wall and houses, as well as slogans such as, ‘We must take this shameful Wall down.’ Behind the Wall on the East side were rolls and rolls of barbed wire and then another barbed wire fence.
“Quite a few people died when jumping from windows or climbing over the wall and there are simple memorials to each of them on the spots where they died. One memorial was for an eighteen year old boy who tried to escape over the wall in 1962, but was shot and fell back into East Berlin. He was left for one hour before the soldiers took him away – he died as a result.”
We went back into East Berlin again the next day. “We eventually all met up and were joined by Thekla and other friends, including Lola. They took us to see the iconic Brandenburg Gate (which we had seen from the other side on our tour of West Berlin) and then we walked past the Humboldt University (where Hildemar and Wolfgang were studying Philosophy)……
“Wolfgang talked about his course in Philosophy – in practice, it is just Socialist Philosophy. They hardly do anything about any other philosophers, and then all the books they have are all written by Communists and are very much biased. His text book for all other philosophers is only about one inch (2.5cm) thick. Wolfgang was a Communist – he said there was a lot of good in Communism and he didn’t really think about the bad things. I think he was really too frightened to think because of the consequences – Frank asked him what would happen if he decided another philosophy was better and he said it wouldn’t be good for him.
“I got on particularly well with Uwe and, with the help of Frank and Jutta to translate, talked a lot with him. Uwe is very unhappy and doesn’t know what to do. He crossed into West Berlin before the Wall was built, but then decided to return because his father is a Professor at the University who writes Maths books and his siblings were all at university. If he had escaped to the West, they would all have been sent to work in factories as unskilled labourers. He is now wondering if he did the right thing then and is coming to the time when he must decide how he is going to act – if he comes out openly against the regime, he will never qualify as a doctor and his father will suffer; and yet, he doesn’t feel he can submit to it. He would like to get out of East Germany (he lives outside Berlin). He said the atmosphere in East Berlin is relatively liberal because so many foreigners come in and they can get western TV and radio (although it is not allowed), and one can talk about one’s beliefs more freely. But in the country, where he spends his holidays, one can’t trust anyone, not even members of one’s own family.
A very strong bond formed between us all in a very short time, in spite of language problems: “I don’t know exactly what it was that drew us together so closely. I know now, to a certain extent, what living in the East means; but I still can’t really imagine it, or me in the same situation….. The time absolutely flew by, and all too soon, it was 11.45pm and time to leave. We had all brought presents of cigarettes, coffee and chocolate because they can’t get much in the East. I gave some coffee to Klaus and some chocolate to Uwe. He looked at it and then at me, and then flung his arms round me and hugged me. It was so spontaneous ….. We all walked back to the station. Uwe turned to me with a look of real sorrow on his face and said, ‘This is not good’. It must have been much worse for him and the others than it was for us, because they have to go on living in the East, in unhappiness and torment. The actual parting was something I have never experienced before, and very painful. It was all I could do to keep the tears back. Without looking at them all, I turned and went through the first barrier with tears in my eyes and was finally separated from them – physically at least. But I shall never forget them….. I was tormented by a sense of guilt and anguish, and of frustration, anger and bewilderment. Why was it that I was able to walk through that barrier and the others could never, under any circumstance, do so? It is just like imprisonment, and yet they are not guilty of anything and don’t deserve it – they are really just the same as me and have the same ambitions.”
It was not until my 45th birthday, 9th November 1989, that East Germany first allowed people to cross freely into West Berlin. The Brandenburg Gate became a focus for the momentous events of that first night of free movement. Soon, the wall was being chipped away on both sides by people with hammers although it was later removed by machinery. It meant so much more to me for having been there with young East Berliners nearly twenty five years earlier. I have tried to track them down since, but without success.
Ian, one of my friends from Medical School, found himself sharing lodgings with Roger Stevens who was studying Chemistry at Queen Mary College. Ian was going out with my best friend, Jane, and felt that Roger and I were very much suited to each other. “Jane and I are going to the cinema tomorrow night. Why don’t you come as well and we’ll ask her room-mate, Margaret, to come.” This happened several times, but Roger, detecting that he was being set up, refused, displaying his streak of stubbornness! However, when Ian had finished using my half skeleton for revision, he asked Roger to help him bring it back to me as it was quite heavy in its large wooden box. They must have upset some passengers on the Underground train as they opened up the box, taking out and playing with various different bones! So this was how I first met Roger. I was struck by his good looks and lovely pale ginger hair and attracted by his sense of fun and warmth. Salley Vickers writes in her novel, “The Other Side of You”, that it is “in the first encounter between two people that the seeds of what will grow between them are sown.” It wasn’t long before Roger gave in and asked me out, to see a film called War of the Buttons (based on a French novel) – and the relationship developed. Ian had been right, and was Roger’s Best Man when we got married in 1967, while Jane was one of my Bridesmaids.
In 1966, I did three months in Orthopaedics which also included shifts in A&E (Accident and Emergency). It was on one of these shifts that my unease about doing Medicine was finally confirmed when a seventeen year-old lad was brought in after a motorcycle accident. He wasn’t very badly hurt but had some nasty lacerations on his face. Whilst watching the local anaesthetic injections being put into the edges of the wounds before stitching them, I knew I would have problems having to do painful procedures on people. The other major factor, which had been growing stronger and stronger and was even more significant for me, was the realisation that I would not be able to cope with the responsibility of making mistakes, which would be inevitable sometimes during my career and might have serious consequences for patients. But it was this experience in A&E which was the final straw for me. Roger and I went out that evening to a concert at the Albert Hall – he tells me we heard Schubert’s 6th Symphony, but I have no recollection of the concert as my mind and emotions were so completely taken up with working through the decision which I felt was at last clear for me. But it was a big decision to make having gone more than half way through the training to be a doctor.
Roger and I became increasingly close and more deeply in love, discovering more and more things that we enjoyed doing together; and so we naturally started talking about a future together. It was not a question of Roger asking me to marry him, but a decision we discussed together and grew into over weeks and months. Just before the autumn term started in 1966, and we moved onto our new courses, Roger came up to Durham to tell my parents we had decided to get married. We planned the wedding for the following summer, when we would both have completed our courses.
My mother especially was not very happy with my ‘choice’ – Roger was not really “good enough” for me. In fact, we felt it wasn’t really until Roger was made Vice-Principal of Bilborough Sixth Form College in the 1990s that she finally accepted that he must have many more qualities than she had originally thought! My Godmother, Peggy Trowell, also had reservations and had, at one time before we got engaged, encouraged me to pull back and think twice about getting deeply involved with Roger.
Roger’s parents were also not very happy about our relationship, for similar reasons to my parents: he was marrying “out of his class”. I’m not sure that either set of parents ever felt completely at ease with us as a couple – or us with them, although I know that my father, especially, came to really appreciate Roger. Roger’s parents died long before mine.
I really struggled during that autumn term of 1966. I was physically exhausted due to the pain and difficulty of walking after the operation on my feet. The upheaval and change from leaving Medicine and my friends to start at a different college, where everyone else already knew each other after two years of working together, was demanding. After three years of freedom, it was hard to be so restricted in a Residential Hall, especially when I would have valued more time with Roger after studying in the evenings. And we started making plans for the wedding. I became quite depressed – and then panicked about the enormity of the decision we had made to get married.
It was difficult to share these feelings at home. My mother never came to terms with depression, refusing all her life to accept that depression is actually an illness which you can’t just “snap out of” or that it can affect Christians. This meant that when she became depressed and was suffering from dementia in the last few years of her life, she refused to go to the doctor. “No, I shouldn’t be feeling like this, it’s wrong” she would say. But my father, thankfully, was very sympathetic and supportive and arranged for me to see a psychiatrist who put me on anti-depressants for a short time until I got back on an even keel. When I shared with my father that I also felt panicky about getting married, he didn’t immediately suggest I should call it off, as I feared, but soothed and encouraged me and even suggested bringing it forward to Easter!
Having got over my panic at Christmas time, helped by being much more settled in other areas of my life, we continued to plan our wedding with excitement. We no longer went out very often as we wanted to save as much money as possible to set up home. Instead, we bought a Ryagarn rug kit and worked on the canvas together, making a shaggy pile rug with a ‘volcano’ design. When we did go out, we went on random buses, asking the Conductor, “How far can we go for nine pence each?” We explored wherever we ended up before using the rest of the money to get home!
We collected all the sixpenny bits (coins) that came into our hands, putting them into the beautiful earthenware pot I had bought Roger when we got engaged. Each weekend, we used to count them and make a record of all the years in which they were minted – how sad was that?! (Sixpenny bits were minted from almost pure silver from 1551 until 1919. From 1920, the year of our oldest coins, they were minted from 50% silver until 1946, after which they were made of an alloy of nickel and copper as silver was too expensive. In 1966, the decision was made to decimalise our currency, which happened in February 1971. Sixpenny bits were still valid currency after decimalisation until 1980, when they were valued at 2½ pence.) Just before we got married, we opened our joint bank account with one thousand sixpenny bits (£25, which felt like a lot of money then, equivalent to £400 in 2015).
We both finished our final exams in July 1967 and were married ten days later.