Dan Sandman

05: Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte

In Autobiography, Biography, Books, History, Non-Fiction on 29/01/2016 at 12:00 pm

Primrose Hill SchoolThe post office in Primrose Hill has been closed for refurbishment. I now walk along Chalcot Road to buy my mother’s daily newspaper. On Thursdays I pick up three papers, and on Sundays I get two, but on most days it’s just the one.

The man who runs the corner shop on Princess Road has been there for decades. He has good manners and always calls me Sir. My old primary school is opposite his shop. When I was a child, there were three places where you could buy sweets on the way home from school. One was the corner shop, which always stocked the small 1p cola bottles and the large 10p cola bottles. A cola bottle is a sweet shaped and coloured like a miniature 330ml bottled coke, tasting vaguely like the fizzy drink we all recognize. In those days, if your mother gave you 30p to spend, that would either get you a real can of coke, thirty 1p cola bottles or three 10p cola bottles. All of which was good for your arithmetic, but bad for your teeth.

Since going back to the corner shop, I have been seeing my neighbours. Like my mother and I, decades ago, when a Mars Bar was still under 30p, my neighbours are walking to school each weekday. My old school was built by the Victorians. Like many buildings of this period, it has very high ceilings. In many ways it looks like a prison: huge black metal railings tower above the children trapped inside its looming walls; there are disused signs, etched into eroded stone arches, to segregate boys from girls and infants from juniors. There is a pervading sense of history, seeping from the very bricks and mortar.

During my residency at Primrose Hill Primary School, I was taught that Victorian children were forced into child labour at the age of eight. According to our teacher Sally, minors were enslaved into sweeping up inside dirty chimneys because of their shortness. As she expressed her imagination, using Gothic imagery wherever possible, Sally taught to us to fear the Victorian age. The overall impression was one of abject poverty, cruel injustice and total misery. According to the book of Sally, the Victorians were the villains of history, whereas the Elizabethans were glamorous.

Those were the post-Thatcher days, Britain was about to be ruled by a man in a grey suit. Teachers could be called by their first name. Our school had no uniform. Milk would never be taken away from our children ever again.

Maybe Sally was right to frighten us with stories of child slavery. Perhaps we were lucky to be at school in 1991, where our worst fear was being shouted at by one of the dinner ladies.

This morning, the corner shop was open as usual, and my neighbours took their children to school on time. These days, I get the sense that life has always gone on like this, and always will.

There is a human tendency to rate one historical moment above another one, but we perceive the universe only through our senses and our imaginations.

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