Autobiography: ‘Life of Polly Corrigan’

Life of Polly Corrigan: Chapter 1: In which I am born and grow up in Camden Town.

It was a very small flat, but it seemed very big to me then, owing to the two great sash windows at the front, and the very large living-room/kitchen. That room ruined me for ever for windows, and I’ve spent the rest of my life hunting down the biggest windows I can find, and always noting lovely big windows wherever I see them. This great room had a lovely old fireplace in the living-room part, although of course it was a gas fire and not logs or coal, and a squashy old brown sofa. The kitchen had a bar where you could sit, topped with mossy green formica, and the radio was always on. Usually Radio 4, and one of my earliest memories is running to tell one of my parents that Jim Callahan, then the prime minister, was singing a song on the radio. But occasionally Radio 1 I think, and I can also remember hearing ‘Oliver’s Army’ by Elvis Costello while my Dad was cooking in the kitchen, and bursting into tears at the lines ‘And I would rather be anywhere else/Than here today…’ which seemed very sad to me.

In the hallway, there was a little loo, and next to it the bedroom I shared with my parents. If you hoisted up the bedroom sash window you could climb out on to a small flat roof and sit out if it was sunny. There were plum trees growing in the yard next door, and so sometimes you could sit out and eat a plum, and there must have been a sycamore too, because I remember watching the helicopter seeds spinning down, and picking them up and spinning them over the edge of the flat roof. Although the flat was on the ground floor, there must have been a basement, because the flat roof looked down over a basement yard, and one end of the roof was just a sheer drop down, which terrified my parents in case I should fall down. There was no garden to speak of but two minutes away was all of Regents Park and its perfumes of roses and cut grass and blue open skies with just the Post Office tower poking up over the hedges to remind you that you were in London. 

Up the stairs was the bathroom, which we all shared with our upstairs neighbours, who were a gang of Scottish roadies, and their glamorous Scottish girlfriends. I had no idea what roadies were, and was a bit afraid of them I expect, but I loved the girlfriends and in the mornings I would creep up the stairs to watch them carefully applying their make-up. 

I can remember lying with my head on my mum’s lap and the scratchy feeling of her skirt, and dressing up in her long dresses and playing very elaborate games in the front room, and I can remember occasional visitors, perhaps one of my parents many brothers and sisters and if I was lucky one of my cousins too. Once when I came home and there was a new coffee table and lamp and my parents were so pleased. I can remember walking through the park with one or the other of them, and with both of them, and I remember my Dad doing the silly walk from Monty Python and laughing so much. But even then, I can remember times when things between them were starting to unravel – or were unraveling and it was becoming clear to me. They were both very good people in their own way, they were good to me, but somehow, they brought out the worst in each other, and they argued, they drank more than they should, they wanted a lot from life but weren’t sure how to get it and didn’t have a lot of support. They were very young and they were a bit foolish, and in that they were not alone. 

What I did before I began school, I do not know. But when I did start school, I can remember a warm and pleasant nursery classroom tucked away in a school just behind Regents Street, just around the corner from the BBC Broadcasting House. Indeed, my class took part in a recording of our singing at the BBC while I was there. Perhaps I was a little bit of a cheeky pupil, as I can also remember telling the teacher that I had nothing to do. She told me to do a drawing, and I sneakily thought to myself that a lot of small children drew squiggles for their pictures, so rather than do a drawing that I had to put a lot of work into, I just drew a lot of circles on my sheet of paper and handed it back. I can still see the teacher’s face – not very impressed. 

There may have been some debate about my schooling between my parents, as I moved schools to start my reception year, to Primrose Hill Primary School. This involved a longer walk through Regents Park to school every day (or a little bus if it was raining). On my first day, we walked up the little steps into the reception classroom, and the teacher suggested I sat by a little girl called Rita Patel. At the end of the day, we were firm friends, and I begged my Mum to let her come and play at our house after school. She didn’t come to play that day, but she did many other days, and we were best friends for the next decade. Miraculously to me, her parents owned a sweet shop, which would be a part of my world for several years to come, although they very rarely let us eat the sweets; only if they were very old and nearly mouldy.

I adored school from the first day. I loved the wooden floors, the big windows (of course), the drawers of supplies, the water tray, the playground from which there was a view over the Regents Canal. I was a bit worried by the trip to the toilets, which seemed very far away, and perplexed by the toilet paper, not in the least absorbent and with a disturbing resemblance to tracing paper. 

I recently read an obituary of the head teacher of my school, Sylvia Mawson, who was described as a bit of a radical. She certainly didn’t seem radical to me, but I suppose the school was infused with some rather lefty, hippie notions. There was very little time for competitive sports, for example, which were felt to encourage negative feelings, and to this day I have great trouble dealing with competitive peers as I find it very hard to understand them. We spent hardly any time learning grammar, which was also felt to be a little old-fashioned, and what little I did learn consisted of calling verbs ‘doing words’ and adjectives ‘describing words’. This practice has been dispensed with, and I’m glad because it made learning foreign languages extremely difficult, although I do feel that I”ve always had a natural feel for English grammar. 

The teachers were all very kind. My reception class teacher was called Peter Khan, and we all called him Peter. He wore flared jeans, and a denim waistcoat. He could play the guitar. Amazingly, he once came to one of my birthday parties, he even sent me a postcard from a holiday he went on to New York. We also had lovely music teachers, Diane was the infants teacher and Mr Nyman was the music teacher for the juniors. We learned such fantastic songs, many of which I still sing to this day and have sung many times to my own children, including ‘The Three Gypsies’, ‘Casey Jones’, ‘A Pussky Dusky’ and other more Christmassy ones too. There was a really amazing one called ‘The Wizard’ which was quite scary, but I cannot remember the words, despite many a search through the internet. 

Unusually, the school had a little swimming pool in the basement, and there I learned to swim. I can remember the painful palaver of trying to put on my swimming cap before the swimming, and the nightmare of trying to drag my tights up my still damp legs at the end. But the swimming itself was heavenly, the water was warm and it gave me a life-long love of paddling myself about like an otter. The first time I fell under the water I remember that for a split second I was certain I had been transported to another world, and one that was quite magical. 

We would quite often venture out from the school into the surrounding neighbourhood of Chalk Farm. Chief attraction was Primrose Hill, where we would always go on or around the day of the Maypole celebrations. The school had its own Maypole, and we spent long rehearsals, ribbons in hand, dancing and weaving around it. The trip to Primrose Hill makes no sense to me now, as the dancing was done in the playground, in front of our parents. 

Primrose Hill, Regents Park, Chalk Farm and Camden provided me with no end of interest as a young child. The main street down to Camden – Parkway – was a lovely street. It had an Italian deli, which smelled of coffee beans and salted cod. There was also a lovely Italian restaurant, Trattoria Lucca, which had a desert trolley laden with delicious puddings, including 

I suppose we went there because Dad felt attached to Italy.