Twirl the Baton Diane!
Here is my Coronation Day story.
In our street the mood was sombre on the day King George VI died, and the memory stands out because it was the only time a paperboy walked down the middle of our road dramatically waving a newspaper above his head and calling out, ‘The King has died, read all ‘abart’ it.’
As a mark of respect, most of the residents drew the curtains across their front windows as they always did when there was a death in the family, and for a few days it was all the housewives talked about while they were waiting to be served in Bert’s.
It wasn’t long though, before plans for Princess Elizabeth’s coronation were afoot and a committee was formed to organise our street’s celebrations. They decided to hold a fancy dress parade as well as a street party, but not trusting to luck although the coronation would be taking place in June, arrangements were made to decorate the street with flags and bunting, while the party would be held in the Church hall at the bottom of our road just in case the day was wet or cold.
At school as coronation day drew near, we were drilled in all the verses of God Save Our Queen, and spent hours drawing and colouring union jacks and then when we’d mastered how to draw it the right way up, making flags to wave.
It was a foregone conclusion that our fancy dress ought to reflect the coronation and we girls had dreamy, if slightly inaccurate visions of being dressed like a glamorous bride with the addition of a jewel encrusted crown, while most of the boys reckoned dressing up and then parading along in front of loads of people was sissy and they weren’t going to take part.
Mum was at best mediocre at sewing and on her limited budget buying material to make long dresses for me and my younger sister was out of the question. Thin white cotton bed sheets might have done at a pinch, but she only had one she could spare. With the best will in the world, it wouldn’t stretch to two dresses. Undaunted, she and dad got their heads together and decided that between them, they could rig us out as soldiers.
Girls as soldiers? My sister was too young to care, but I wasn’t very happy with the idea. Nevertheless, dad swept us away on a tide of enthusiasm, promising we would win if we put ourselves in his hands. We would, he said, look sensational, but if I’d known that we were going to end up looking like toy soldiers from The Nutcracker Suite, I would have thrown a wobbly and not taken part.
His first idea was to make fur busbies so that we looked like Grenadier guards, but he couldn’t scrounge anything remotely resembling bear fur. For the shortest time he contemplated cutting up mum’s expensive fur coat even though it was grey and not black, but she soon put a stop to that idea and instead he made two large hats out of cardboard and painted them with shiny black enamel paint — which is when the Sugar Plum Fairy look fully emerged!
He scoured junk shops to find brass buttons and cap badges, while mum dragged gran’s temperamental Victorian Singer sewing machine from the cupboard under the stairs and sorted out the thinnest cotton bed sheet – all she could spare – to make trousers and jackets.
With no pattern to follow and never having made trousers before, mum cut out a square that fitted around our hips with nothing to spare; sewed it into a tube, sewed up the middle and down again to our leg length, cut between the two rows of stitching to form the legs, and elasticated the tops. From the same sheet, she cut two tops all in one piece arms included, and dyed them red. With a double row of brass buttons down the front giving the impression it was double breasted, she said no-one would guess it pulled over our heads.
For the final touch dad made me a baton out of a broomstick with knobs from a brass bed on either end – for balance he said – and we spent a lot of time in our back garden while he taught me how to twirl it – but I wasn’t very good. I still wanted to be a queen.
Although it was in June, the big day dawned cold and grey. Shivering in our thin cotton outfits, Elaine and I took our places in the parade. Unnervingly, the entire neighbourhood had bundled up warmly and turned out to watch.
For what seemed like eternity, we paraded up and down the street accompanied by ‘ooohs’ and ‘aaahs’ from the neighbours and taunts from the boys. Mum and dad were standing on the edge of the pavement outside our house and when I sneaked a quick look at them I could see mum was on the verge of crying with pride, while dad was waving his arms around and shouting at me to, ‘Twirl the baton our Diane!’
I thought it would never end, but in the end the judges decided on the winner. Gail Beasely, dressed as the Queen won first prize. Susan Henderson took second with her bridesmaid outfit, and Elaine and I won third.
The prize giving was to take place in the church hall before we tucked in to bread and butter, trifle, iced biscuits and currant buns. Cold and secretly fed up because after all that fuss we hadn’t won first prize, we trooped into the hall and once everyone was crammed in, all the kids in fancy dress made two circuits of the hall to wild applause from the helpers who had been busy preparing and setting out the food, and had missed our perambulations outside.
The man in charge who was up on the stage cheerfully shouted that he wanted the prize-winners up there with him, whereupon, instead of letting us walk up the small set of stairs at the edge of the stage, two enthusiastic helpers grabbed us under the armpits and heaved us up onto the stage to join the master of ceremonies. Unluckily for me as I landed by his feet, the strain on my wrongly cut trousers, combined with them being made from the thinnest part of the sheet was too much. They split from crutch to waist.
Dying of embarrassment as I accepted our book token prize, I hoped that as long as I kept facing the front I could sidle off stage, and no one would notice what had happened. Wrong. It simply wasn’t my day. The same bright spark who’d suggested putting us on the stage, then said he wanted us to parade around the hall for one last time and to complete my humiliation, the same helpers hauled us down from the stage. As I was lifted down to the floor there was no hiding my knickers.
I’ll never forget how the boys jeered as I pointlessly walked with my knees together and my hands held stiffly at my side in an attempt not to draw attention to what had happened to my rear end. I was so mortified I couldn’t even cry. I just wanted to go home and hide for at least a year, but for once in her life mum didn’t realise quite how upset I was and rushed home and brought back a dress for me to change into.
It didn’t help. The food tasted like sawdust and stuck in my throat as the boys spent the rest of the day teasing me about seeing my knickers.
It made their day and over fifty years later when I met up with one of them, he couldn’t resist reminding me about it. But boys are like that aren’t they.