Sunday the 5th of December was an auspicious day: a group of fellow ex St Mary’s Town and Country School pupils, who all met for the first time in the 50s, got together for a reunion tea; and it was wonderful! It was amazing how little people had changed. Of course we were all aeons older, but many of us were taken aback by how intact the physical pattern was.
After I had discovered the SMTC web site, which actually had few, if any, of my fellow classmates’ contributions, I noticed one missive posted by Craig Sams. So it was he who started Whole Earth Foods, with the gorgeous peanut butter I’d been enjoying for years! As with lots of eco-friendly brands, one has the notion there is a sympathetic person lurking just behind the label. Who would have thought that person went to St Mary’s? In his posted email he mentioned some familiar names who had been in his class, kids I knew had also visited SMTC teacher Jean Bennett’s cottage in the country. We started an email exchange and slowly the idea formed to hold a reunion of some sort. I offered our house in Crouch End as the location; if numbers were not great and the occasion was a simple tea, the event would be relatively easy to organise.
On a further visit to the web site, I discovered that ex classmate Stefany Tomalin had added a recent contribution. I emailed her and was soon back in a loop of old friends. Steffy had stayed in touch with Jenny who had stayed in touch with Alexis who was still in touch with ... and so it went on. We were all still here: Jennifer Read (née Risner), Stefany Tomalin, Alexis Pfeiffer (nee Findon), Vicki Berger, Susannah (née Huxley), Seth Mydans, Gered Mankowitz, Craig Sams, Greg Sams, Ben Jacoby, Peter Friedmann and more in the offing. We were all still alive, most of us working, still thinking fondly of our time at SMTC. We also thought fondly of Jean Bennett, the beloved teacher of some of us, with her thatched cottage deep in the heart of rural Sussex, for it was certainly was the deep rural heart in the 50s, necessitating a long journey in a rickety coach from Victoria, to be dropped off at the Rose and Crown, Beckley. I remember the hit of sweet, fresh air as you stepped from the coach, with Jean and her faithful dog, Peter, welcoming us. Then came the walk down the lane to the picturesque eighteenth century cot, its hat of thatch a haven for countless nesting birds. I was in a state of constant joy staying with her, so “overexcited” one morning that I got up at dawn and drew the view from the bedroom window with a fervent passion. I was eight. I now have the drawing, because Jean saved it, though I only found it after she died, safe in her private archive. Many of us would agree that we are the Children of Jean in spirit, the children she never had.
The date for The Big Tea was set and more than a dozen people expressed a keenness to come. My partner, John Steele, and I went shopping to stock up on loaves, cakes and biscuits. Sandwiches were made, confectionery abounded - a Billy Bunter special! The fires were lit, the brass and silver was polished, French chansons resounded through the spacious double sitting-room, and all was clean and bright. The monster jade plant in the bay window was bedecked with Christmas baubles and fairy lights, its fat, juicy limbs indifferent to the season.
The first to arrive was Stefany, glowing in rich purple. I had only seen her a couple of times since the age of eleven, but she was instantly recognisable, the same Steffy of years ago, her wavy hair still long, now woven cleverly into a plait down her back. We greeted each other like delighted puppies and she was welcomed in. She gave us one of her beautiful books about beading - The Bead Jewellery Book. Plus she had brought superb home-made biscuits. Well, not exactly home-made - but unmistakably buttery and nutty, from a shop called the Delicious Bakery in Kensal Rise. Then Vicki Berger arrived, bearing two salvers of Ritzy cucumber sandwiches, crusts off! For some reason, our paths have crossed far more often than the others’. In our youth, we even shared the same boyfriend, though not at the same time, I hasten to add!
By now I was boiling water by the gallon, orchestrating the making of tea in various pots, and suddenly everyone was arriving. Peter Friedmann, with his wife Bridget, drove up from Southampton. Craig Sams and his brother, Greg, both of whom I was meeting (consciously at least) for the first time, arrived together. I was on Cloud Ten greeting people - Ben Jacoby and his wife Juliette were welcomed in to join the growing crowd; the last to arrive was Jennifer Read (née Risner), still the lovely Jenny, with her shiny black hair, a kind and positive twinkle in her eye. Everyone was so generous with gifts they brought - a stollen, a plant, a panettone, grapes and wine, sandwiches, biscuits and cards. Dear Craig came with an orgy of his Green and Black's chocolate, and we were spoilt for choice. (I’ve since put on at least 4 lbs. Zounds!) To seal our fate of addiction, Craig gave us a sumptuous book - Green and Black's Chocolate Recipes, plus The Little Food Book, which he wrote, for more serious reflection.
I was up and down the stairs like the proverbial tart’s knickers, tea pots at the ready. In fact we were all totally tea-ed out of our heads in no time. Bridget had withdrawn at the start to the relative quiet of the back half of the room, and John kept her company, real fires burning in both grates. I was getting high on Earl Grey and sardine sarnies. I managed to do a ‘musical chairs’ with Peter and sat down at last. Peter chivalrously insisted that he wanted to stand, as he had driven so far, and it was at this point that he suggested we each give a three minute resumé of what we’d been doing over the years. Most of us thought it was a good idea, and he turned to Vicki, on the sofa by the window, inviting her to begin. “No fear! I’m not doing that!” she said with a grin.
PETER FRIEDMANN: So Peter began himself. He told us that, after leaving SMTC, he attended William Ellis, his secondary school. Then he went to Cambridge University. He was studying medicine when he met his wife, Bridget, who is also a doctor. They have one grown up daughter and a son. Peter took several consecutive posts over the years that meant living in various towns in the UK - first Newcastle upon Tyne for 13 years of training/development in research, then Liverpool, where he developed an academic department of dermatology. He was being ground down by being the head of Medicine and was on the point of taking early retirement when a rare opportunity arose for the post of Professor at Southampton University, where he now works. He is researching the effect of the environment on the skin, including such influences as ultraviolet light and various chemicals. His work sounds fascinating and ultimately beneficial. But I’m delighted to say that everyone seems to be doing something beneficial and creative in their own field.
GREGORY SAMS: Peter then turned to Gregory, on his right, and Greg told us how his family had come to England due to his father's employment in the civilian wing of the US air force. Their family was traditional in that his dad went out to work, and his mom was - "well, mom" - the home-maker. Both Greg and his brother had been sent to SMTC as kids, but from 1958 were enrolled in the American education system. The family moved through several European countries, following Mr Sams' employment. They eventually decided they liked England best and settled in London. Greg's father passed away nearly two years ago, but his mother still lives in the UK. Greg began university in 1966 at Berkeley CA, and had a severe accident at the end of his first quarter. The eve of New Year 1967 saw him dancing on the branch of a tree without realizing the branch was dead. It snapped off and he fell, breaking his back and thus ending up in a wheelchair. He was flown to Stoke Mandeville, then the best place for the treatment of spinal injuries. He went through a terrible ordeal and I am full of admiration for how bravely he has obviously coped, with his independent spirit, his inventiveness and his stamina. I'm also touched by how close and mutually supportive the two Sams brothers are to each other.
In that same year of 1967, Gregory and Craig opened the pioneering macrobiotic restaurant called Seed, near Paddington Station, the first of its kind in the country. Within the next four years the tow brothers opened Ceres Grain Shop and Ceres Bakery in Portobello Road, plus the first wholefood wholesaler Harmony Foods - names familiar to many of us. While they were baking up one end of the market, Alisha Sufit was singing down the other (getting arrested from time to time!) and Stefany Tomalin was threading beads in her shop in between. Three SMTC hits on Portobello in the 70s!
In 1982 Harmony Foods hit a financial crisis, steering the brothers onto separate paths. Craig stayed on, turning it into Whole Earth Foods and eventually getting it back on its feet. Gregory moved on, launching the unique new product he had hoped would restore Harmony. He'd created, christened and trade marked it VegeBurger™, and it was an instant hit that created a new market for vegetarian foods. Gregory sold his burger to a multinational in 1988, and took a 2 year advance on retirement. Then he became so inspired by new science chaos theory that he opened a shop dedicated to it off the Portobello Rd. It was called Strange Attractions and sold everything from posters to jigsaw puzzles to t-shirts printed with swirling colourful fractal images. His fractal images were licensed to publishers of posters and other goods - or through the Science Photo Library to publications worldwide. Then Greg moved from pictures to words and wrote a book that applies the principles of chaos theory to society, entitled 'Uncommon Sense - the State is Out of Date', available from bookshops and on his website, which includes his fractal gallery and other info: www.chaos-works.com/
CRAIG SAMS: When it was
Craig's turn to talk, his story very much dove-tailed into Greg's, as they have
shared much in their lives. Craig took a trip to the near east as a young man
and came back very ill. He was in the USA when it was suggested he should try
macrobiotics as a cure, a theory of diet that was treated by the US authorities
with the same suspicion in which they held communism. Macrobiotic books were
even seized by a paranoid US government and burnt as heretical tomes, back in
the late 60s. The east coast macrobiotickers upped sticks and moved to California,
where they could develop their ideas and way of life with less censorship.
"Macrobiotics is just what the sick liver needs," said Craig. He
adopted the diet and his health recovered, which was his inspiration for
starting the Seed restaurant. Craig separated from his first wife, with whom he
had two children, and is now with his second wife, Josephine Fairley. "If
I'd known how great it is to have grand children, I'd have skipped having kids
altogether and just gone straight for the grand kids!" Craig described the
birthday cake his grandson made for his uncle Gregory's 56th birthday, of mud
in a paint tin lid with cigarette butts as candles, and decorations of
Craig sold off Whole Earth Foods last year and 2 years ago moved to Hastings. One Saturday night in 1991, in bed with his wife, they thought up the dream team Green and Black's, seducers of us all. (Oh Lor, how many Twists have I had today? Must clean teeth specially thoroughly tonight. I've hidden the chocolate - snag is I can guess where it's hiding!) Aside from the burgeoning success of Green and Black's, Craig is also Chairman of the Soil Association. He has produced and written several books, including the celebrated The Little Food Book, full of interesting information about modern food and its production - a useful cautionary tale. Hastings is a great place to live and Craig misses London not at all. His future plans include developing his small holding with plantings and organic food growing, plus opening a new organic bakery in Hastings. (We shall haste to Hastings one of these days, and taste the bread of old!)
ALISHA (ALICIA) SUFIT: Then it was my turn to speak: I took ballet lessons aged six at SMTC; Madame Nicolaeva Legat was my first examiner, i.e. warm Russian woman in black, with pearls, who knew Nijinsky at the parallel time! Aged 11, I went to the Arts Educational School for dance and drama, followed by a year at Parliament Hill School for Girls. Armed with six GCE's and 'A' level art, I enrolled at Regent's Street Polytechnic art school. After a term, I was discovered to be officially too young, so took off for Paris for a gap year. Aged 17, I braved gay Paris on my own, studying at the Ecole Nationale Superieure des Beaux Arts, making new friends and painting pictures. Then I went to Chelsea School of Art to study painting and etching, plus drew like a fiend (see web site www.alishasufit.com) My mother, Mary Sufit, who was a teacher at SMTC in the 50s, died of cancer when I was 18 - a sad time. After some mind altering experiences (it was ‘67 after all! see. R.Crumb’s ‘Meat Ball’) I started singing and playing acoustic guitar. When I was 22, egged on by a friend, I tried busking in Portobello Road market, a surprising success! I busked for several years, as well as doing gigs in folk clubs, music venues, colleges, radio, plus one film. I was the singer songwriter in a band called Magic Carpet in 1972, and formed Magic Carpet Records (www.magiccarpetrecords.com) in 1993 to reissue the eponymous album we made on CD and limited edition vinyl. The original Magic Carpet LP has latterly become an international collectable. Aged 34, whilst doing a gig Upstairs At Ronnie Scott’s, I suddenly got interested in jazz and learned a repertoire of jazz standards. With hair permed, and smock be-sequinned, I gigged with smoochy piano players for nearly ten years. I write poetry and have published one book entitled Moon Clippings, stocked by Waterstone's (included in BBC Radio 4 Poetry Please). I completed a post graduate illustration course at Central St Martin's, and have also written a novel (unpublished). I still write songs and perform occasionally, plus I currently work part-time in the art room of an Islington mental health drop-in centre. My partner, John Steele, and I have a cottage in Normandy, our joint project of the past years. We continue to live in Crouch End, bastion of reformed hippies!
BEN JACOBY: Then it was Ben’s turn to tell us something of his life: after SMTC, his uncle financed his attendance in secondary education at a reputable boarding school, which was academically good but not as happy as St Mary's. From there he went to university. Early on, he met his charming Moroccan Jewish wife, Juliette, whom he persuaded to stay in England and with whom he has lived ever since. They have two daughters, now adults. Having studied biochemistry, amongst other subjects, Ben is now stationed in High Wycombe and works in Regulatory Affairs with Ortho-Clinical Diagnostics, a subsidiary of the American healthcare company Johnson & Johnson. His home is in Cambridge but he stays several nights a week near work, as commuting would be too stressful.
JENNY (RISNER) READ: Having left SMTC aged eleven, early on at secondary school Jenny announced to her teachers that she wanted to become a “social worker”, though she hardly knew at the time what this entailed. After graduating from university, social work was indeed her chosen sphere and she held numerous posts, including work with children in care and in education. She married her first husband, with whom she had her daughter, Tessa, now 27. When Tessa was still a small girl, Jenny’s first marriage came to an end, and she met her second husband, with whom she has lived for the past 25 years. Jean Bennett was someone she always kept in touch with, loyally revisiting her in adult life. Jenny inherited the two young sons of her second husband, aged four and six, whom she jointly brought up as part of the new family, along with her own daughter. She now divides her time working as a therapist in private practise, plus in a social work capacity within education. Her lovely, warm-hearted brother, David, died fifteen years ago, leaving a wife and two small boys. He was a successful director at the BBC. Her mother and father have both also passed away, her mother only last year. On receipt of her mother’s estate, Jenny and her husband bought a small house in the south of France, near Perpignan, where they try to spend as much time as possible. They hope to move to the south when they finally retire.
STEFANY TOMALIN: Next to speak was Stefany Tomalin. After a happy spell at SMTC, she went to South Hampstead School for Girls, the place where clever girls go! There was a lot of pressure to achieve academically, but Stefany became ill at a crucial time in her youthful development and decided she would follow a course closer to her own heart, something more arts-oriented. She studied fine art and graduated with a Dip AD (BA equivalent). There was a marked dearth of resources and research in the art of beads at the time, and, having had a lifelong passion for the subject, this is the path she chose. The subject became more fascinating to her as she discovered how little was known, and her own skills and knowledge were self-taught. She met her husband quite young and started having babies early. The family lived near Wood Green in a spacious house with a large garden. In 1982 Stefany opened her first bead outlet in Portobello Road, in a small new craft shop unit under the flyover. Business took off and she later managed to get an excellent lease on a well-positioned shop in Portobello Road. The rent was so reasonable, in fact, that it was cheaper than her first shop, a necessary prerequisite for a delightful commodity with small profit margins. She built up a thriving concern over the years, and wrote her first informative and inspirational book entitled Beads! which has sold 100,000 copies! A few years ago, she took the opportunity to buy the Portobello shop lease; having retired from her business, she now lets it out. A more recent tome called The Bead Jewellery Book, published by David & Charles, is also doing well. Her marriage having dissolved in 1982, Stefany continues to live in London, following the careers of her talented and adventurous grown-up offspring with interest, whilst still teaching bead threading skills on occasion. She currently devotes more time to the practical and spiritual teaching that she has followed for many years, giving welcome in her home to various friends in need and people in transition. She is a founder/committee member of the Bead Society of Great Britain.
VICKI BERGER: In the end, Vicki felt she had no choice but to join in. She told us how she too was sent off to South Hampstead School for Girls at the age of eight, where she stayed till taking her 'O' levels. She then went to Camden School for Girls, which she found a happier place to be, but academically the move was a bit of a disaster. On leaving, she was very confused about what to do, but, after a circuitous route, she enrolled at Regent's Street Polytechnic to study architecture, a brave choice of subject for a woman in the 60s! With an advance of some money left by her grandfather, in 1969 she bought the house in which she still lives, situated in a charming early Victorian enclave in north London. “The best move I ever made!” After qualifying as an architect, she worked at the GLC, at first in the Historic Buildings Division and then in Housing Modernisation. As the demise of the GLC approached, she began to accept private commissions, took voluntary redundancy and set up in private practice with another ex GLC architect, at first in her house and later in the studio in the back garden of the house in Grove Terrace NW5 in which she had grown up. This enabled her to keep an eye on her ageing father, her mother having left him some years earlier. This continues to be her work place, the partnership having dissolved in 1991. Along the way she has also enlarged her knowledge to include landscape design and now works as an architect and landscaper, mostly with existing buildings. Her older sister, Carol Berger, stayed at SMTC until 11 and then went to Parliament Hill School. She was involved in the setting up of a group of nurseries in Camden which aimed to integrate pre-school children from ethnic minorities. She continues to be the chief administrator of these nurseries. She is married to a graphic designer, with whom she has a 21 year old son. She lives in Islington.
Vicki adds: "Carol & I went to Jean Bennett's cottage once. We were very unhappy there and were delighted when our mother arrived to take us home." Three minutes - or even ten - is no time in which to be explaining oneself. However, it was good to get at least that much insight into what others had been doing, otherwise the whole afternoon might have drifted pleasantly by without finding out much about each other. There were too many of us to be able to go into great depths there and then, so we are all looking forward to repeating the meeting! Not long after our biographies were delivered, Peter and his wife had to make a move, in order to get home at a reasonable hour. We rose to say an affectionate goodbye to guests, Greg and Craig soon joining the parting fray. Craig had a long journey and a busy day ahead. The afternoon had passed all too soon, and now a smaller group sat round the fire, drinking more tea, talking pleasantly for some time: Ben, John, Vicki, Stefany, Jenny, Juliette, and myself. After several hours, it was time for the small crowd to break up, with promises to return. John and I waved goodbye to Stef, the last to go, and then turned back into the house with a warm glow in our hearts. We cleared up and went down to the kitchen to wash the dishes, happily reminiscing already, delighted that The Big Tea had been such a success!