Interview 4: Barbara
aged - 91
"Barbara greets me wearing a suit she’d had made in Rome when she lived and worked there. “It’s about 60 years old,” she tells me, “I got it tailor made. The fabric came from a Scottish company called Bill’s who came out to Rome and set up a demonstration area in the FAO building, I think because there were so many foreign workers there, the fabric came direct from Britain…it was in the early/mid 50’s. Kenneth had a suit made of the same fabric but his wore out because he wore it so much. It’s Irish thorn proof tweed I think, it’s not Harris anyway. I took it up a little at one point, not too far however, as once you’ve lost the fabric you can’t lengthen it again.”
Barbara was 12 or 13 when the war started. She remembers material being rationed. “When I was at school it was 1 point for ankle socks and 3 points for longer/warmer socks so we all went through the entire winter with ankle socks on… There was a maximum of 3 pleats allowed in any woman’s skirt during the war, to save fabric…”
Barbara’s father was in the home guard and her mother had died. They lived in Bromley (south of London) at that time and although the area was “…a non-evacuation area (to or from), a bit of a no mans land…” it was very exposed. “Most bombers were heading for London of course, but some of the German pilots would drop their bombs short, because of lack of fuel, I suppose, or they couldn’t be bothered or didn’t care where they fell…We had a shelter under the dining room table that looked like an animals cage with metal supports and sides made from a kind of wire mesh. I was supposed to sleep under the stairs, it’s the strongest place in a house you see, and I did, until I saw a spider!”
Otherwise of being at home she remembers the flying bombs which you could see coming: “They had flames out of the back, propelling them along, and you could hear them as they moved forwards until suddenly they’d go silent and you knew they were falling but didn’t know where they would hit…if you could see one falling it was likely it was going to hit you. I actually preferred the rockets which came afterwards because they’d just hit and you wouldn’t know anything about it”.
After school Barbara went on to do Geography degree at University in London but her whole college was evacuated (when she was 17/18) to Cambridge. There she lived in digs with a “funny woman” who fed her and the other girls “…little revolting pies.” They tried sending them back the first night, but the same ones were served up again the second night, at which point they crumbled them up and put down the loo.
Barbara’s first job after the war was with George Philips, the school atlas publishers. She was the first professional woman employed by them and earned £250 a year “…which was low even then and of course lower than the men’s salaries; they’d never employed a woman before they didn’t know what to pay me”. Soon enough she asked for a raise but they only offered a paltry half a crown (12.5 pence in today’s money). Their office at the time was on Fleet street, above a shop, with the Inns of court just behind, “…a friend and I would sit and eat lunch in the garden there”.
“George Philip and Son - British publishing house, one of the oldest in the United Kingdom, located in London. The company, specializing in maps and atlases, was founded in 1834. Some of its best-known publications were the Philip International Atlas and the Philip Management Planning Atlas. Its chief publications in the late 20th century were atlases, maps, textbooks, and books on meteorology, religion, history and geography”.
I ask her: “And where did you meet Kenneth?”
Barbara replies: “It turned out we’d lived on the same road. Various people had said to me early on: ‘Oh you should meet such and such, he’s going to university too,’ but we didn’t actually meet until by accident at a friends wedding”.
And after the wedding they didn’t then meet again until he’d been in the Sudan for 2.5 years (working) and Barbara had been in Rome (working) for a similar period. “So how did you end up in Rome?”
“After the war we were all desperate to go abroad because it felt like we’d been caged in. I’d already applied for work in Nigeria and Finland but hadn’t liked the jobs I was offered Then a friend of ours (my subsequent stepmother) spoke to a friend of hers who worked for the Banka de Roma and asked if they had any spaces/jobs. I jumped at the chance…I was about 23.”
At the bank Barbara was supposed to be dealing with English incoming admin etc but didn’t know any banking terms “…so eventually they had to tell me they just couldn’t really justify my job. It was taken over by a sort of intern, but he had a banking background so he new the terminology. I’d enjoyed it though, I’d been treated like a bit of pet…”.
Barbara then moved to work for the FAO in Rome (Food and Agricultural organisation, part of the UN) where she stayed in her admin role for about 5 more years. “They were collecting statistics, sending experts abroad to help plan agriculture projects and the like, I was more on that side…It was sad how it changed in that time though Stephanie, at the beginning everyone was fired up and had ideals to make the world a better place, it was all about spreading ideals, but by the end it had become all about money, budgets etc.”
“The FAO (Rome): Located in a big white modern palace and set up in approx. 1950 the F.A.O (Food and Agriculture Organization) is an international organization and part of the United Nations. It’s an inheritor of the International Institute of Agriculture, founded by David Lubin in Rome in 1905. Entrusted by Mussolini to house the Ministry of Italian Africa its home, the palace, was originally planned in 1938 by the architects Vittorio Cafiero and Mario Ridolfi. The building was then enlarged and belonged first to the Ministry of Italian Africa (during WWII) then to the Ministry of Post and Telecommunications. FAO’s ongoing aims are to improve the living conditions of rural populations by implementing projects that improve agriculture productivity through ecologically sustainable practices. It’s also the lead agency for agriculture, forestry, fisheries and rural development”.
“And did you marry in Rome?”
“No we came back to Bromley to get married.”
Follow up - I dropped in on Barbara and Kenneth again today to return their images and she invited me in to show me the jacket of another outfit she’d found in the mean time which (like her tweed suite) she’d had tailor made during her time in Rome “…by an individual dressmaker,” she says, “I got her to make me several things. This had a dress with it which I’ve given to my daughter…the collar is mink.”
In a telephone conversation Barbara begins by referring to what I’d said in one of my introductory talks about being interested in what makes up/decorates each of our psyche’s. She tells me: “When I was 5 and my sister was 7 she died…we were lining up for an injection (the pre-med for a tonsillectomy) they hadn’t cleaned the needle and my sister was standing next to a boy who was incubating scarlet fever. I was next in line and was in hospital for about 4 or 5 months with complications, but the strange thing is I don’t remember anything about my life from before that. I don’t even remember my sister. I remember there being a Christmas tree in the ward that had a fairy on the top (I was very disappointed that I didn’t get that) and I remember my mother standing outside the windows of the ward looking in, because they weren’t allowed to visit. I remember coming home to my sisters toys, I got to keep those toys though I didn’t like many of them. My parents were very nervous about my coming home and how they’d tell me about what had happened to my sister but i didn’t even remember I’d had a sister…it must have been the trauma”."
- Stephanie Smart
Barbara with the shoes that her blue jacket with a mink collar inspired. To see images of the shoes please click here: