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Vicarage memories

05 December 2014

Caroline Bowder on one year in the 1970s from the perspective of a clergy daughter

Is the Vicar In, Pet? From the pit to the pulpit - my childhood in a Geordie vicarage
Barbara Fox
Sphere Books £7.99
Church Times Bookshop £7.20 (Use code CT265 )

BARBARA FOX's charming memoir (to quote the dust jacket) describes one year of her childhood in the 1970s.

She is nine when her father becomes Vicar in "the biggest mining village in the world": Ashington, in the north-east of England - a thriving, close-knit mining community still in its pre-Thatcher heyday. Against a background of net curtains, outside lavatories ("netties"), smoking chimneys, and gregarious neighbours, Barbara and her three siblings learn to "speak Geordie" and adapt to their new life.

The colourful neighbours become "Aunty June" or "Uncle Ted", and eventually "Mum" becomes "Mam". The vicarage hosts numerous popular parish events, after years of inhospitality from the previous incumbent, who was a bachelor.

These are the joys and duties of clergy children: a big house and garden, but a public life, with conspicuous dad and commented-on mother (no net curtains! But she's got a dishwasher and a chest freezer); constant visitors, but an honest welcome into many households - including unsavoury old women and their cats.

The author's childhood experience is enthusiastically chronicled down to the last cream bun: every game, meal, school relationship, popular product, TV programme, Enid Blyton book, and domestic conversation is included.

There are notable events (particularly the miners' strike), and a host of colourful characters, but it felt somehow ghost-written - talking of which, was there a ghost, and why was so little made of it? - made into a popular narrative, detailed and dialogued but somehow lacking immediacy. Writing about childhood cannot be simple.

After a year, Ashington becomes "home".

It's an easy read. Women will identify with Barbara's swooning over long-haired chaps in the church choir, fantasising about film stars and romance, and joining in competitive handstands and skipping-games. Oh, for the life of a nine-year-old. But who is it for? Is it a memoir? Social history? Nostalgia? I'll settle for good light entertainment.

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