Posted in Events, Personal life, Writing

In Praise of May (No, Not That One)

I wrote this column for the May issue of the Tetbury Advertiser before Theresa May announced the snap General Election. If only I’d known, I’d probably have ditched this topic and written about something completely different! 

Procession of children in traditional May Day ceremony at English primary school
Me, centre, being a May Maiden, with Days Lane infant school in the background

May has always been my favourite month, promising blossom, sunshine and the real beginning of spring.

I trace my fondness for this month back to a special event in my childhood: the May Day ceremony held each year at the infants’ school I attended in suburban London. When I was seven, I was one of a number of May Maidens, decked out in white dresses with floral wreaths in our hair, to process the length of the school field behind the May Queen, to the tune that I will ever associate with that special day, the Elizabethan Serenade.

Cover of sheet music for Eliabethan Serenade
Our old sheet music for piano, bought at around that time

 Looking Forward

This lyrical piece of music was composed by a former English cinema organist in 1951 to herald the new Elizabethan age, a time of forward-looking optimism – just right for May, then. The same composer was responsible for another easy-listening piece, Sailing By, still used to introduce the Late Night Shipping Forecast on BBC Radio 4 – a comforting combination for insomniacs as well as sailors.

By the time I first encountered the Elizabethan Serenade at school, the Queen’s reign was well into double figures, so for me the piece became forever the emblem of a more literal kind of spring.

May the Force

May’s special status was compounded by the words of one of my favourite hymns in our daily school assemblies at that time of year: “May time, Playtime, God has given us May time, Thank him for his gifts of love, Sing a song of spring.”  I’m not sure who I thought had given us the other eleven months, but God obviously endorsed my preference.

First page of piano music
You hum it, I’ll play it…

Decades later, I very nearly named my daughter May, till I realised that combined with the surname of Young, it would make her sound like an item on a Chinese takeaway menu. I imagined her being nicknamed Eggy in the playground, short for Egg May Young.

More recently, I subconsciously shoehorned an optimistic May into my lighthearted new novel, Best Murder in Show. Elderly travel writer May Sayers, who dies before the book begins, creates a fresh start for the heroine, her great-niece Sophie Sayers, by bequeathing her a Cotswold cottage. In my world, even a posthumous May can usher in new beginnings and the promise of something better to come.

May or May Not

Cover of the May 2017 issue of the Tetbury AdvertiserMy irrational attachment to all things Mayish even make me more tolerant of the current Prime Minister than if, say, her name was Theresa Might.

But deep down of course I know that names don’t matter. If I’d been raised in Australia, May would have all the promise of an English November, i.e. none at all.

After all, the composer of the magical Elizabethan Serenade and Sailing By rejoiced under the prosaic name of Ronald Binge. Deeds, not words, as the suffragettes used to say. Come what may…


(And in the June issue, I’ll be taking it all back…)


Posted in Family, Personal life

May Day

Procession of children in traditional May Day ceremony at English primary school
Me, centre, being a May Maiden, with Days Lane infant school in the background

For me, the concept of May Day will be forever associated with an annual ritual that took place at my infant school in Sidcup, a Kentish suburb of London. 

Each May Day, or the closest school day to it, the girls from the oldest class became “May Maidens”.  We had to dress in white frocks and the prettiest girl (how un-PC is that?!) was crowned May Queen.   A determined band of mothers raided everyone’s gardens for roses and greenery to make into wreaths for the Maidens’ hair.  They also wove two long floral ropes for the Maidens to carry.

The May Day Procession

For the May Day ceremony, the whole school turned out onto the field.  ‘The Elizabethan Serenade’ played over the tannoy, while two lines of May Maidens, each carefully carrying one of the ropes, processed slowly to the far end of the field.  Then they stood still while the May Queen and two attendants proceeded down the length of this floral aisle.  Once the May Queen had taken her place on her throne, the Maidens sat down on the grass and the Headmistress addressed the gathered crowd of parents and children.

I don’t remember what the boys had to do, but they must have found the whole thing pretty dull.  Not so the mothers, who ooh’d and aah’d as we walked by, snapping away with big, boxy cameras.

Those were gentler days, I think to myself, wishing that my own small daughter had the chance to take part in such an idyllic ritual.  But then I realise with a start that the backdrop to this quaint ceremony was far from idyllic.  For behind where the May Maidens sat, all along the edge of the school  field, was a long row of air-raid shelters.  Though the war was over long before we May Maidens were born , most of the adults watching our procession would have been all too familiar with the inside of an air-raid shelter.

A Sheltered Life?

Me, centre, aged 6, as a May Maiden on the school field
Funn how it seems it was always summer when I was a child…

These days it is hard to imagine that Health and Safety inspectors would allow any school to have such dark, dingy, unlit sheds on the school field.  Risk assessment for air raid shelters?  There’s an interesting thought.  In those days, of course, children were allowed to enjoy a little danger, but I’m sure that’s not the only reason the shelters were retained.  I suspect there was an inkling that we might needed to use them again.  This was, after all, the 1960s.  The Cold War was in full swing.  Even as recently as 1980, the government was issuing its infamous “Protect and Survive” leaflets, telling us how to guard against a nuclear attack.  (Unbelievably, top tips were to sit under the kitchen table or to take a door off its hinges if a table wasn’t to hand.)

We live in more peaceful times.  My daughter may not get to be a May Maiden, but at least I don’t have to worry about a bomb falling on her school.   All the same, she’d look awfully pretty with roses in her hair.

(This post originally appeared in the Tetbury Advertiser, May 2010)