It was the doing, the being, the performing that I loved - the sheer physical sensation of being alive! I adored the power of my body and what it could do. It was a good body too, it allowed me to do lots of things well. Why, I cried for three days when mother said that I couldn’t go to Bedales. Three days! That’s a lot of crying.
Interesting that I was so intensely aware of my physical self, because both my mother and father had bodies you’d notice, if you like. Father, of course, was terribly disabled. At 17, he’d gone down with polio, infantile paralysis they called it in those days. It was the beginning of the first world war, when he was at Harrow. He’d played a strenuous game of football and then swum in the river nearby. He became terribly ill. He woke up days later paralysed from the neck down. He did get better, but one arm was emaciated and one leg shorter than the other and his spine was crooked – it didn’t stop mother falling in love with him though – he was a very attractive man. She used to say, “better polio than the trenches”. Who knows what would have happened to him there!
And Mother got awfully fat after the three of us were born. I suppose having all those babies so fast. She had that soft fat: she would pull it into corsets and go on endless diets. One time she’d been on a diet, lying in bed and starving – she couldn’t lose weight by exercising – too fat! She went to see the doctor, the one who’d put her on this really small diet. He was examining her when he suddenly said, “Good heavens, Mrs Beamish, do you realise you’re pregnant?”
“Oh how lovely,” she said, “now for God’s sake give me something to eat!” That was Luke, of course, six years younger than me.
We were a musical family - Mother had been a professional musician before she married. She was a good pianist and had a pretty voice although she’d been badly trained. I never understood why, but she was always jealous of my musical ability. She was a good mother in every regard except that one – I’ve never fathomed it. Mother had four brothers and all of them except the youngest, Norman, were talented. He was my favourite uncle though. Later on, when I was at the Royal College of Music, he’d take me out to supper every Tuesday. “Now where would you like to go tonight my dear?” he’d say. We got on famously, we’d try somewhere different every week and eat until we were bursting.
In the end they did send me to Bedales – I got a scholarship so we could afford it. Goodness, I loved it. There was a marvellous sexy atmosphere: lots of sport and boys and girls all thrown in together. I revelled in it all – sheer joy! They dug these frightful places for us to shelter in during air raids – boys one end girls the other. We were separated by a door. I always got as close to the door as possible so that I could look through the key-hole at the boys. They did the same. We never got together there but you bet we managed elsewhere – it was a very co-ed school! I swapped jolly quickly from one to another, I liked variety and I was swapped myself for someone more glamorous now and again. I put on a lot of weight in my teens, like my mother.
I learnt to play lacrosse – much better game than hockey which makes lots of girls round-shouldered.You catch the ball in the stick and as you run you swing it. Once I just whooped the ball over my head and a girl behind me caught it. Thrilling! There was a wonderful gym – I loved the vaulting horse and the wall bars. I could bring my legs up straight while dangling from the bars. I’d look around and watch the others struggling and relish the look of my legs with their lovely pointed toes straight out in front of me.
But music was really my thing. I decided to put on a production of The Pirates of Penzance. I had a lot of know-how so I helped some of the others rehearse for the auditions. I was looking forward to being Mabel so badly – but this girl I’d helped got the part. She was two years younger than me, two inches taller and had a face like a bloody horse. That was a hard knock, but I healed my inner wounds and took the part of the pirate maid of all work. It paid off in the end – Horse Face had a terrible cold and the reviewer from the local paper said, “Silvia Beamish performed with very marked success and was one of the highlights of the whole production!”