My mother got my name from a flower catalogue. Shirley - a hardy, annual Poppy, native to Europe, with delicate tissue-paper flowers. Bit of a contradiction in terms, but all in all my name seemed to fit perfectly with my early life. I went to 13 different schools in 11 years. On average that’s a new school every 10 months. There were reasons, of course. All valid I suppose, not that I could make sense of it all at the time: Family breakdowns, war etc. Once we had to go to another location because we got bombed out. I remember that time, because I could understand why we were moving. The rest of the time it was always something vague like “Your mother’s not well” or “Your father’s got a little problem”, or simply “Not now, Shirley”, when I’d pluck up the courage to ask. I got used to being parcelled around to different places for one reason or another. A year, 6 months, sometimes even less. I just came to accept it. Well, you do as a child, don’t you? You just have to buckle down and tow the line. Sometimes there’d be gypsies in my class for a week or two, and I’d think, We’re like them. Only their life seemed much more exciting. They were meant to be on the road, and besides they took their homes with them. But there was one constant in all this change. Whenever we went to a new house, I’d get up that first morning after the move, very early, and go into the unknown sitting room. And there in the centre of the mantelpiece, looking like it belonged there would be our green marble clock. I fancied it greeted me with a smile. Here I am, it would seem to say. I’d go up on tiptoes and reach out to stroke its cool body, “Hello”, I’d whisper, turning my ear to catch its low murmer: Tick-tock, tick-tock. “Here I am. Here I am.”
At first, wherever I went, I’d do my best to fit in, to do well. But after a while I gave up trying. At one school I’d be behind, at the next ahead - Ealing, Bedford, Scotland, Cambridge, Kent. All those different places and different teachers - some who tried to help, but most not caring, or worse, not even noticing me. I was little you see - easily missed. I was one of those delicate little creatures where everybody goes “Ah – isn’t she sweet?” I looked like the mascot in the class. Nice and neat and tidy and doll-like. If somebody did something naughty they’d say “Oh it can’t be little Shirley – off you go!” But they didn’t know what was going on inside. I used to gaze out of the window - dreaming. I certainly wasn’t lacking in imagination. “Little Shirley” got away with quite a lot!
After a while I didn’t even try to make friends. I’d just look for the other misfits hanging around by the railings in the playground and we’d form a sort of bond. It was easier that way, and better than having no friends at all. I finally gave up school at 14. It had all been such an effort. I think the best you could say is I survived school – that’s all. My education was like an unfinished jigsaw. But I was certainly articulate. Both sides of the family were very “wordy”. Grandfather would say “Right we’ll get the encyclopaedias down!” I was Scottish, but I learnt elocution. My mother, who’d been an operetta singer before she had me, took some care over that kind of thing. Received Pronunciation. At school they used to say “Listen to her! She’s got a plum in her mouth.”
When I was 26 I decided to do something with my life. I had a huge chip on my shoulder about my patchy education. I quite thought I was illiterate, so I enrolled at Chiswick Poly. We had a fantastic English teacher there who really encouraged me. She got me into writing stories and poems. ‘Look Shirley,’ she said, ‘you’re like someone sitting on the fire with your backside burning.’ Well she definitely fired me up, got me going! I passed 3 ‘O’ levels, History, RE and English, then went on to theological college and became a pastor. I still like to keep busy now. Perhaps some of us never stop moving – like the hands of the clock we keep on keeping pace with time. And the quiet voice still comforts. “Here I am. Here I am.”
Did you know that Shirley also means Bright Meadow?