IVY TEMPLE, local organist

Inspiring local organist, Ivy Temple, shares the lows and highs of being blind.


Where did you grow up?

I was born just outside Ormskirk, near Liverpool. When I was six weeks old, they discovered I was blind and they sent me to the Sunshine Home for Blind Babies. My mother already had a baby of three and another was six. She had 9 in all. She used to say, I always knew I was going to have another baby when he came home drunk. I was her tenth pregnancy. There were six boys and three girls.

Were any of your siblings blind?

Just David, my older brother. He had glaucoma and one eye was removed when he was three – they don't remove them now – and the other when he was 13. So, he did know sight whereas I didn't. But as a toddler I thought I could see because I could sense things without touching them, a sort of echolocation. I could sense things as I passed them and thought that's what sight was. But I can't even see light and dark. I have a disease called microphthalmia which, in Greek, means small eyes.

What was your schooling like?

John Lennon always did as my husband asked because Den always said please.

They were all boarding schools and all the children were blind. At the first one, all I remember is that a lady used to come and see me occasionally and all I knew about her was that she was called Mummy. She always gave me an orange or sweets. Then they moved me to a school in Devon when I was seven, but after a while social services decided it was too expensive to send me home for the holidays so I went home. It's surprising what used to frighten me at home. When my mother put the kettle on the fire and it boiled over, that hissing used to frighten me. I didn't make my first pot of tea till I was 18, but I was thrilled to bits. And I couldn't understand when things were frying. I thought someone was running a tap. And I hated the phone ringing too long. I worried that no one was ever going to answer it.

Do any of those fears persist today?

Not at all. When I got married I learned to fend. My mother didn't let me have a go. She was ignorant. When I got married she said, I don't think you should get married. How do you know the food you serve him will be safe to eat? My Dennis said, if I don't mind, she needn't mind. When I moved to London she said, you shouldn't be going to London. You should stay here and look after your (blind) brother Dave.

Did you get on with your mother?

Not really, though she never really knew me as a wife and mother. When I had my first child, Arlene – I'd moved to London by then with Dennis – I took Arlene home for the first time and was playing with her when my mother said, you think she's laughing, don't you. Well, she's not. Den said, don't worry, she's just upset that she never did that with you.

Ivy-w-DenHow did you meet your husband, Dennis?

Dennis had an uncle who was blind. Dennis wasn't blind. He was short–sighted but that was corrected with glasses. His uncle was sent for rehabilitation where I was training to be a telephonist in Bayswater. Den was a Londoner, born and bred – from Latimer Road. One dau, Dennis came to visit his uncle. We were all in the sitting room and I said to Dennis, would you like to play some records, and he said, yes please. Next time, I said, do you want to come down to the café for a Friday butty? Den said, yes please. And his uncle said, I hope you're not going out with my nephew. I didn't like his uncle. He was always after the girls. So I said, if you think I'd go out with a nephew of yours... Of course, I married Den. I was 25. That's a good age to get married. He died in November 2003.

What was Dennis like?

He was a gentleman. Before we settled in London, I dragged him to Liverpool where he worked as a machinist. The man standing next to him on the bench for three months was none other than John Lennon. Den told him, if you want a good job you need an apprenticeship in tool making, but John said, I won’t be in this shed for long. I've set up a band. He was one to answer back was John, and their boss used to say, why will you do something for Dennis but not for me? And John said, because Dennis says please.

Did you and Dennis have children?

We had Arlene in 1965. We checked with the doctor first and were so relieved she wasn't blind. Den was starting to spoil her so we had another daughter, Judy. They're both wonderful, but you can't spoil a child.

How did you support your family?

We both worked, Den for Fyffes Bananas and I had all sorts of jobs. I wanted to go to music college but my school thought I'd be better off learning chair caning or how to knit scarves and jumpers. I worked on the knitting machines for a while. It was worse for Dave. He worked in a broom factory and had to put handfuls of bristles into a vat of boiling pitch. Once he accidentally stuck his fingers in and the doctor said, we're going to have to let this cool, and crack it off or it'll rip off your skin. Dennis wanted to report it, but Dave begged him not to in case he lost his job.

Anyway, I did my factory work and hated it so I trained in telephony. I worked on the switchboard for the Medical Research Council's switchboard for 27 years at Hammersmith Hospital. And I worked for the RNIB as a Braille transcriber. I remember my first job as a receptionist in Green Park. We'd moved here by then. I've lived in this flat since 1964. I had to travel there by tube, but I was terrified. On the weekend before I started, Den and I rehearsed that journey four times, but I still couldn't get the hang of it. I didn't have a dog back then. I had to ride in the back with the guard for the first week.

When did you get a guide dog?

Dennis and I used to organise shows at the church. Den did the sound and I did the music. Sometimes I went there on my own and Den said, he'd be happier if I had a dog. The training was stressful because I was used to a cane. You're supposed to let the dog guide you and I led it. I've had four dogs: Charm – I had her till she was 11, when she went blind. She was lovely. I wept when she went. Then there was Maria, but she was afraid of buses. She used to tremble every time one went by. She pulled me over a sack of potatoes and they took her away. And then there was Jodie. I had her till she was ten, but she started behaving oddly. The vet said she was going through a second childhood. And now I've got Lionel, a lab-retriever cross. He's a good boy. They've all been good. They're like my friends. We have a laugh.

You play organ in the local church. Does music mean a lot to you?

Oh, it does. I started learning music when I was seven. It wasn't easy. For a start, there was no Braille sheet music during the war. And my first teacher was abusive. He was blind and sat on the bench with me to check I was using the pedals properly. The trouble is, he touched more than my feet. I reported him, but nothing came of it. He's dead now. Anyway, I still play at the Methodist United Reform Church on Askew Road. Get that in. When we got the girls christened, I asked if I could play the organ, and when the organist died, I took over.

Do you blame God for making you blind?

No. God gave us brains to work these things out. I don't blame anyone. If I wasn't blind, I wouldn't have met my Den, I wouldn't have had my girls and I wouldn't be a grandmother.

How do you stay so positive?

Everyone has their ups and downs, but you just have to get on with it, don't you?

Thank you, Ivy. It's been a real pleasure to meet you. And Lionel.

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