In Part 1 my family had moved to Kenya; I learned to ride a bicycle in the most painful way and spent hours hanging upside down from the trees in our rambling garden.
We were too spoiled for our own good (Granny was wont to inform us) and I doubt she was wrong. The 1960s were enough removed from both World Wars for families to benefit from improved economies as countries started the rebuilding process. Our family was swept along with others and possibly for the first time in many years there was money for more than the bare necessities.
A main event in our early childhood were birthday parties and we lived in a very social neighbourhood in Nairobi. There were strict rules of reciprocity that ensured parties took place with such frequency that I came to dread them.
Drop off and pick up were not the etiquette of the day. Rather, our parents attended with us which was a little less daunting for me because I found any new, noisy and crowded situation was quite frightening. I was slow to warm up at parties and I tended to stand on the sidelines, watching. When I was sure I had the measure of who was present, what was happening and what the expectations were, I joined in, slowly. I am still that way.
Our parties bore little resemblance to those of today. There was a gratitude for the effort put in by the hosting family and we always, always, always wrote thank you letters to the parents and child, recalling some highlight and remarking on a special feature of the party.
There is an expectation these days that this party will be better than the last, there is an unspoken shame of repeating someone else’s idea of entertainment; that every child will leave with some meaningful gift (there’s a reason they’re called loot bags); and perhaps the worst of all differences is that some children feel free to let you know whether the party you’ve spent weeks planning was a complete success or an abject flop. Believe me, I have been the recipient of a precocious nine year old’s opinions … and how my hands itched! Sadly I doubt the child would have held back if her mother had been present.
Most of our parties followed a similar programme, which was a comfort for me, knowing what to expect: meet and greet, children in a circle on the grass as the party child unwrapped each gift and we all oohed and aaahed, the child’s mother read each card out loud and thanked whoever had given the gift. Outdoor games followed that entailed a lot of running about hiding and seeking, playing squashed sardines. This physical activity was designed to get us “working up an appetite” for a sit down party food meal. I stuck to the sandwiches, cocktail sausages and sauce and potato crisps which were a special treat.
We dutifully wore our party hats that were kept perched on our heads by chin elastic that sometimes gagged us. We passed dishes of food and sweets around making sure that each person had one of everything on the table. Too bad if you did not like something, you went without, it did not mean you were entitled to two of something else because we knew another child would miss out. Ah me! The good old days, there was order back then.
Our parents hovered behind us as they balanced cups of tea on saucers and chatted amiably to other parents. When we had finished eating and to allow the party food to settle in our now full tummies we were ushered into the lounge room and seated on the floor in neat rows. As far as I was concerned, we were waiting for the best part of any party. That time when you did not have to speak to anyone but could sit quietly and get lost in a world of fantasy and wonder. I think the only reason I did not put up more resistance to attending so many parties was the entertainment.
Punch and Judy Shows were a regular feature of birthday parties we attended, that or magic shows and once Noddy and Big Ears showed up in the yellow and red Noddy car. Great excitement. Without a doubt the other forms of entertainment were more wholesome, and less violent, than Mr Punch and Judy, but for me these stories of Punch and Judy do have a place in my memory that is special. For all the violence, was it really any different to the violence in today’s cartoons. Years later I sat through many an episode of Roadrunner and Wily Coyote or Scrooge McDuck and wondered at the impact of those scenes of violence on my children. I wonder what they remember of those programmes?
Punch and Judy originated in the seventeenth century when violence was commonplace, the humour crude and justice harsh. It dealt with moral codes of the day when it was known (if not accepted) that men beat their wives, people turned a blind eye when children were mistreated and authority was scorned. Eventually it was toned down for families who started attending seaside shows although it still contained a lot of violence. It can be viewed as a sad storyline, with cruel and sadistic violence but the characters and unchanging storyline have intrigued generations and captured our sense of justice. Punch says and does what many of us long to do and vicariously we are vindicated.
As children, watching this carry on, we were enthralled and entered into the drama with the glee of conspirators: Watch out, he’s behind the curtain; Quick, Judy, he’s got the baby. There was a lot of us telling Punch where someone was and his replying: Oh no he isn’t! By the end of the show we were completely caught up in the adventure and barracking for the underdog.
Although I was not mistreated in my home, school was another matter altogether. Because of my reticence to join in and a preference for my own company, I was bullied and taunted by other children. I understood Punch and every blow he delivered I secretly wished I could do the same.
My child perspective of Mr Punch was that he was on the receiving end of Judy, the nagging wife’s shenanigans, the policeman’s authority, unfairly wielded, and the manifestation of the Devil who represented the supernatural, an all powerful unpredictable evil force. I remember thinking that Punch had to become who he was because of the people in his life who tormented him and on whom he eventually turned.
What can I say … different times, different culture!
When the final curtain fell and Mr Punch and Judy, we were exhausted from the excitement and calling out to various puppet characters as we tried to warn the characters of pending doom or misfortune. The discussions that followed were nearly as animated as the show as we retold our favourite parts.
When the birthday cake came out with its lit candles we knew the party was drawing to a close. Once again we gathered around the table, this time to sing Happy Birthday to the birthday child and wait to be handed a piece of cake.
If the party was a morning event we returned home to spend a quiet afternoon unwinding. While my brother had difficulty sitting still or in fact being quiet, I looked forward to going home and being on my own. On my bed, with a colouring in book and crayons or a reading book, or puzzles – I was happy. If it was an afternoon party, once home, it was straight into a bath and we were ready for an early night.
The books may be different now but this is still my idea of a perfectly delicious way to unwind after a hectic time with a crowd of people.