It is May 1931, and little Gladys is still hoping her teacher will notice her. She’s skipping lightly around the Maypole and smiling for all she’s worth. It’s nearly Empire Day, and Gladys wants to be Britannia. Mrs Clark and some other teachers are sitting in the playground shelter. There’s bright sunshine. The pole is planted on the circle that marks the centre of the football pitch where it is the duty of Frankie Ellis, as captain, to kick off. But Frankie is playing the daft ‘apeth and Gladys is getting hot. She’s about to kick off too.
It is November 1989 and Little Gladys is now in her sixties, though she looks somewhat older due to the rickets that she suffered as a child. She is on stage at a comedy club run by the New Variety circuit, following an anarchist punk who juggles chain saws. Clad in a glittery gold suit, clutching her poems on scraps of paper and old betting slips, ‘The Bard Of Stepney’ begins…
I’d been picked! I’d been picked!
My arms were a-flinging, my heart was a-singing ‘cos I’d been picked!
It was for Empire Day I’d been picked,
My teacher said I was a good reader
And I could dress up as the leader
Of the empire we had then.
I’d wear a bronze helmet and be draped
In a red, white and blue flag,
And reign over all other lands –
That’s what an Empire meant then
The day came nearer, I was getting excited.
Teacher spoke to me, then my day was blighted.
She realised I was too small to reign.
She wanted someone tall and striking,
Who looked like a Viking holding a shield
And looking across the sea.
I was already weedy, then I felt rather seedy
And asked if I could go home ‘cos I was in pain.
She said I could do this part when I grew older-
But how could I? Silly old cow! We ain’t got no Empire now!
ALAN GILBEY AND DEB SCOTT-LOVRIC
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