PATRICIA FINNEY – by Herself
One of my first memories is of being in hospital to have my tonsils out, aged 5 (they did tonsillectomies on youngsters with more enthusiasm then). I was doing what I always did to get to sleep, when a nurse came to me and asked if I was having a bad dream. No, I told her with withering patronage, I was telling a story about a hamster. Why was I shouting, she wanted to know? Because the hamster was being silly and trying to jump out of his balloon basket without his rocket pack and I was warning him. She told me to stop telling stories at once and be quiet. She went away rather hurriedly.
I had told stories to get to sleep from the time I could talk: I also remember being furious that my baby brother was being moved from my parents’ room to mine because I was told not to wake him with stories. This was when I was three. Luckily my baby brother either liked the stories or philosophically slept through them, so I had no experience of not-telling-stories-to-myself until I was in hospital. It was awful. The longest week of my life.
I learned to read at a convent school and at home. My father waited until I was well started and then spent an Easter holiday reading a Ladybird book called “Lost at the Fair” with me. It rhymed and concerned the doings of the usual squirrels and mice and we stormed at each other every day as I insisted that I couldn’t do it and he insisted that I could. Suddenly, somehow, it all came clear. The letter meant sounds and the sounds fitted together to make words. Why hadn’t anyone told me (they’d been shouting it at me every day). I read the next page and the next page, all the way through to the end. My dad told me to get his newspaper and then he picked a paragraph, told me to read it but not to worry about any long words. I read it. “Well, Patricia, you can read,” he said and I turned cartwheels across the sitting room.
I read voraciously. I read Thumbelina which my mother had refused to read again after the hundredth time and I could read it as often as I wanted. I read a big thick book of stories for children, including the ones my father had carefully marked as being too scary for bedtime. I read Ladybird books about Robin Hood. I got hold of a book of stories from history and munched my way voraciously through about half of Enid Blyton’s titanic output until I spotted that all her plots were the same and stopped.
I came from a family which accumulated books constantly, where the arrival of a carpenter to add another set of bookshelves was a regular occurrence until every spare wall had been filled. Nobody ever told me to take my head out of a book and do something useful – unless I was endangering myself by crossing roads while I read. Reading at table was also discouraged, though not successfully, because my mother said it was rude. How could it be rude to read something interesting instead of listening to my boring oafish brothers? And I wasn’t snotty or bonkers, either.
I worked my way through the classics – oh, the sorrow of my seventh birthday. I got no less than four – FOUR – copies of Alice in Wonderland, which I lined up on my window sill, along with my own copy which I’d already read. As I explained to one of the mothers, for the cost of that hardback, she could have got me two paperbacks, maybe more. (Maybe I was a bit snotty.)
An excellent children’s bookshop opened in our local shopping street. I did a deal with my parents whereby instead of pocketmoney I could go and buy a book every few weeks. It was very difficult to choose – so I read about three books for every one I bought. When the shop eventually closed I was devastated and I caught myself looking to see if it had magically returned only last year.
When I was seven I had to write a story about anything for school. Naturally I wrote about spacemen exploring other galaxies and outwitting jelly aliens – it extended for about five pages and I remember it as the second story I had written down where I had the odd feeling of being swept up and carried along by the story itself. A friend of my mother’s read it and said it was marvellous – I didn’t like him, in fact, but I was immensely flattered. I got A minus for it (untidy writing, I’m afraid).
I wrote the story for Miss Cole, a wonderful teacher in the desert of hypocrisy that was the small private convent school of St Anthony’s in Mill Hill. Other people who went there tell me they adored Sister Stephanie, the headmistress. I can only say that we didn’t get on. I think that the Catholic church has improved its recruitment of nuns now, but then there were still a lot of ignorant ginger-eyebrowed Irish girls who had made what seemed like a romantic decision and then found how hard and draining of humanity a religious vocation can be, especially if you don’t have one. Pre-Vatican II they were locked in and stewed in a kind of dry rage with the children in their care whom they sought to humiliate and cow whenever and however they could. Sister Agatha, long white face and ginger eyebrows, specialised in very sharp ruler-rapping on the knuckles and a shrill self-righteous stupidity remarkable even among nuns. Sister Stephanie, small twinkly and with apple-cheeks, seemed to get some strange enjoyment from calling naughty children on stage during assembly and telling them off in front of the whole school. The only one who stood up for me was Miss Cole, bless her heart, and I worked as hard as I could for her until the happy moment when my parents lost patience with the school and took all of us away from the place. The only sad thing about it was that I never had the chance to say goodbye to my best friend Alex Hayes.
I knew that writing stories could be a job because my grandmother had been a novelist in Hungary before the war. At the time I wanted to be a doctor but I thought perhaps I could be both.
I could have been, I think, if I’d managed to keep up the momentum of work from my next primary school, Henrietta Barnett Junior School, and my wonderful beloved teacher there called Miss Griffiths. For her I wrote a poem called Boudicca which began “The tramp of the legions, the fear of my heart… I told the story of the Kon Tiki expedition from the point of view of an albatross.
However primary school led on to secondary school and I went to Henrietta Barnett School in Hampstead Garden Suburb, a slight oddity of a school as a grammar school staunchly resisting the fashionable comprehensivisation of the day, and there for various reasons, I was bitterly unhappy. I don’t blame the school; I think they genuinely did their best for me, as far as they could, and many of the teachers were imaginative and skillful. What would any school do with a sullen stroppy girl who simply sat at the back of every class scribbling stories and blandly refused to do any homework. Give her detention? Well, as I pointed out to Mrs Berkeley, I quite enjoyed detention since I could sit quietly and write something, didn’t matter what. She said I was a card. Perhaps something she said to the other teachers helped. They pretty much let me get on with it as I wasn’t disruptive – except when somebody wanted me to pay attention to the lesson instead of finishing a poem which had hit me particularly hard, at which I burst into tears to mine and everyone else’s horror. Nowadays everyone would be rushing around doing pastoral care on me which might have helped or might not. I think a lot of the blame can be taken by that ugly monster, Puberty, which I hit with a sickening thud at the age of thirteen.