Posted in Family, Personal life

Artistic Connections

cover of the November issue of Tetbury Advertiser
Click the image to read the whole issue for free online

In my column for the November issue of the Tetbury Advertiser, I’m talking about what can be found on the walls of my Victorian Cotswold cottage, thanks to the talents of my artistic relatives! 

My Cotswold cottage is full of the unexpected. Having been raised in a suburban semi with the same layout as every other house in the street, I’m pleased that my current home, although modest in size, is sufficiently rambling that visitors have been known to get lost.

I’m also glad to have pictures on the wall that can be found only in my house. This is because they are mostly originals by my paternal grandfather, father, aunt, cousin, brother, daughter and brother-in-law. Not that I come from a family of famous artists, just from a line of gifted and enthusiastic amateurs.

Changing Tastes

Not so in my previous homes. In my twenties, in my first flat in a modern London block, I displayed cheap prints of old masters, clichéd by over-exposure, such as Turner’s “The Fighting Temeraire”.

By the time I moved to a Victorian artisan’s two-up, two-down terrace, I favoured nineteenth-century sentimentality. Think G F Watts’ “Choosing”, in which a teenage Ellen Terry can’t decide between a handful of diminutive sweet-smelling violets held close to her heart and showy but odourless camellia bush. My daughter, the same age as the model, hates this picture with a passion, which makes me wonder how poor Ellen Terry felt about the set-up, painted by her future husband, thirty years her senior. The marriage was short lived.

Keeping It in the Family

photo of pastel drawing of lighthouse
Grandpa’s pastel drawing of a lighthouse

Now I have the family’s landscapes, seascapes, portraits, textiles and calligraphic compositions in almost every room. My latest acquisitions are from an old school sketchbook of my grandfather’s: a pastel drawing of a lighthouse and watercolours of a steam train and a hospital ship at sea. As my grandfather was born in 1905, he would have painted these during the First World War. In the same sketchbook are drawings of an airship and a tank – the latest technology of his day, exciting and glamorous to an Edwardian schoolboy.

photo of two framed painting in situ on the wall
Grandpa’s schoolboy watercolours, now proudly displayed in my front room

I already had Grandpa’s pencil sketch of Kentish oast houses, made towards the end of his life while in Farnborough Hospital. He was still drawing during the final illness that took him too soon at just sixty-six years old.

pen and ink drawing of Kentish rural scene
Grandpa’s painting of Kentish oasthousses

I regret that I lack his artistic genes scattered down the generations. My daughter certainly has them. Her drawing skills surpassed mine years ago.

Indelible Lines

But still we connect, my grandfather and I. In a light-hearted conversation with my eighty-seven-year-old father about decluttering in old age (my message: don’t bother, just enjoy what you have and leave the decluttering to your descendants), he said with a fond smile: “I remember Mum saying to me after Dad died, ‘But why did he need three fountain pens?’”

Silently I opened my handbag, withdrew my pencil case, unzipped it and spilled out onto the table three fountain pens. Artistic or not, I am my grandfather’s granddaughter.

photo of my pencil case with three fountain pens

 


cover of Young by Name
The cover illustration is a watercolour by my father

If you enjoyed this post, you might like to read more of my columns for the Tetbury Advertiser, which I’m compiling into books. The first volume, Young By Name (the name of my column in the magazine), covers the issues from 2010 through 2015. The second volume, taking us from 2016 through 2020, will be out at the end of 2020.

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cover of The Pride of Peacocks
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Posted in Personal life, Reading, Writing

Latin is a Language (Not Quite as Dead as Can Be)

In my column for the December issue of the Hawkesbury Parish News, I shared the new discovery that’s helping me to learn Latin: Duolingo

For a couple of years at secondary school, I studied Latin using what was then considered a revolutionary new system.

The Cambridge Latin Course tried hard to make learning fun and Latin funky. The first year’s course book had a bright orange cover – very right-on in the 1970s, when I chose to paint my bedroom walls bright orange too.

The course revolved around the story of a real-life family, headed by Lucus Caecilius Iucundus, a rich banker, living in Pompeii just before the devastating eruption of Vesuvius.

Call me suggestible, but Lucus Caecilius Iucundus and his family came to seem very real to me, and I cared about them.

When I changed schools at the age of 14, to my regret Latin was no longer an option.

Now, decades later, I’m making up for lost time with a very 21st century route to fluency: a free app called Duolingo. With an estimated three million users globally, Duolingo aims to please its students wherever they are in the world.  Thus I find myself translating surreal conversations featuring New York, Philadelphia, Boston and California, none of which existed when Latin was a living language.

screenshot of Duolingo's Twitter home page
Duoloingo’s Twitter home page indicates its popularity

Having always wondered what happened to Caecilius and family, I decided to investigate. To my surprise, our experimental texts have since become a classic teaching method, celebrating 50 years in print. The particular book I used, albeit now published with a less startling coloured cover, is currently Amazon’s #1 bestseller in Latin.

cover of first book in Cambridge Latin series showing Amazon bestseller orange flag
I was astonished to find my old school Latin textbook is currently a bestseller on Amazon – bestseller n the Latin category, anyway!

Even more surprising is that Caecilius and family have since featured in an episode of Dr Who, which my daughter kindly found me on Netflix. Their adventure opens just as Vesuvius is making ominous noises, portentous of imminent eruption and mass destruction. What becomes of my chum Caecilius? You’ll have to watch it to find out. (Here’s the link to its IMDB page: https://www.imdb.com/title/tt1173173/)

But I have one remaining question: had I had been able to persevere with my Latin studies, would Dr Who have popped up in the A Level textbook? Now that would have made Latin cool.


PS Added Duolingo fun can be found on this alternative Twitter account: @shitsduosays, which highlights the more bizarre and surreal phrases it teaches you. Here are a few screenshots to whet your appetite:

screenshot showing the phrase "You are already dead" screenshot of phrase "Were did those horses learn French?

tweet in response to a phrase "This is a matter of life and death" saying "Duolingo owl, I only missed a day, oh god I'm sorry"

 

Posted in Events, Personal life

Coining It – Some Thoughts about Commemorative British Coins and Pound Notes

Sherlock Holmes 50p coin
My latest collectible 50p coin features Sherlock Holmes

My column for the November 2019 issue of Hawkesbury Parish News was sparked by reading an article in the paper about the new design for the British sterling £20 note, which will be launched into circulation on the pleasingly appropriate date of 20/2/2020.

I bet I’m not the only one in the parish stealthily collecting commemorative British coins.

Every time I pay by cash, I check my change for these tiny works of art in which I take a childlike pleasure. My latest acquisition is a Sherlock Holmes 50p, an odd bedfellow for Paddington Bear, Peter Rabbit and Benjamin Bunny in my collection, but a very welcome one.

array of Beatrix Potter, Paddington Bear and Sherlock Holmes 50p coins
Spot the odd one out…

If you’re looking for something to collect, these special coins are a good choice:

  • They’re affordable
  • They retain their face value
  • You might even profit from selling rarer ones on eBay

If you hit hard times, simply return them to circulation (ie spend them!) and put a smile on the face of another enthusiast.

Not that I plan to do that with mine. I’ve always regretted as a child spending my collection of old pennies, after acquiring one for nearly every year that they’d been minted.

Good on Paper

Paper money, with its larger canvas, attracts public debate with every new design. The latest note to get a new look is the £20, with a portrait of Turner and his most famous painting, The Fighting Temeraire.

The side of the £20 note showing Turner and his painting of The Fighting Temeraire

The side of the new £20 note showing the Queen, featured on all British banknotes

Although celebrating a ship that played a significant role in the Battle of Trafalgar, the picture is tinged with sadness, as it shows the ship being towed away for scrap by newfangled steam tugs. The golden age of sail is over, and the nation is entering a period of radical change.  As I write, we’re poised on the brink of Brexit: the end of another era. I wonder whether that’s the real reason the Bank of England’s chose this design?

Like to know more about the new £20 note?
Click here for an interesting article on the Bank of England‘s website.

Like to read more of my columns from the Hawkesbury Parish News?
Click here to find out about All Part of the Charm, my published collection of these columns. 

Cover of All Part of the Charm
“These are little vignettes of village life and what it is to be human that make you just want to pack up and move there straight away.” – Lynne Pardoe
Posted in Events, Personal life, Writing

Lest We Forget: Remembrance Day 2019

The Hawkesbury Upton village community prepares to mark Remembrance Day at the war memorial on The Plain

Halloween and Guy Fawkes Night may be lively and fun, but what means much more to me than either of these is the quieter, more dignified occasion of Remembrance Day just a few days later.

On the closest Sunday to Armistice Day (11th November), in our corner of the Cotswolds, we gather by the Village Hall to begin a group procession to the war memorial on the Plain ( our equivalent to a village green). There prayers are said, hymns are sung, and a rendition of the Last Post precedes our minute’s silence. It is a simple and moving ceremony that unites the community in honouring our war dead.

photo of Alice in Wonderland scarecrow wearing a knitted poppy
Once the frivolity of Halloween was over, my Alice in Wonderland scarecrow, on the Hawkesbury Upton Scarecrow Trail, donned a hand-knitted poppy as  her mark of respect

Festival of Remembrance

On the previous Friday, a special Festival of Remembrance is held in the parish church of St Mary sharing music, poetry and readings. The church is decorated by Linda Fairney with hundreds of knitted and crocheted poppies and lit withe dozens of candles. Transparent perspex figures representing lost local servicemen sit on the pews among the congregation.

A particularly moving component of the service is the commemoration of each man lost in the wars. This is delivered by churchwarden and chair of the Friends of St Mary’s, Air Marshall Sir Ian Macfadyen KCVO, CB, OBE, FRAeS , and Simon Bendry, Programme Director for the UCL Institute of Education’s First World War Centenary Battlefield Tours Programme, who was born and raised in the village.

Ian announces each man’s name, then Simon recounts a brief biography – where each man lived and worked in the village before the war, a summary of his war record, how he died, and how the news of his loss was conveyed to his wife or mother. As each name is announced, a child from the 1st Hawkesbury Guides lays a poppy on a cross on the altar steps to commemorate the life lost.

Many of the surnames on the war memorial are still present in the village, generations later. It is a sobering reminder that war affects us all, no matter how far from the front line.

Simon Bendry, who grew up in the village, has written a book about all those remembered on the war memorial – a very special local record for our community.

An Outpouring of Poppies

I am glad this year to see that so many communities are continuing the practice established for the WWI centenary of making elaborate public installations of knitted or crocheted (and therefore weatherproof) poppies. Some people were concerned that after the centenary year was over, the public might lose interest in the occasion, but there are no signs of that around here.

I’ve also seen impressive displays in unexpected places, such as this banner, its message spelled out in knitted poppies, in the atrium of Southmead Hospital in Bristol, where I went to an appointment on Wednesday.

 

banner on wall with "we will remember them" spelled out in knitted poppies
In the atrium of Southmead Hospital

My Own Small Tribute

When so much of the world seems in turmoil, and anxieties are high, to me it seems more important than ever to come together as a community to espouse common values. That’s why in my novel Murder in the Manger, in which the story begins on 6th November, I took pains to include a similar ceremony in my fictitious village of Wendlebury Barrow, this time held in the village school and involving all ages. (Simon Bendry kindly read it for me before publication to make sure it was appropriate.) In Chapter 14, entitled “We Can Be Heroes”, Carol, the village shopkeeper says “Just because we’re a little village doesn’t mean we can’t produce heroes.” That is my personal and lasting tribute to the heroic young men from so many villages like ours who gave their tomorrows for our todays. We will remember them.

 

Posted in Personal life, Writing

Vasilios: A Tribute to the Man Behind the Name

Bill and me in our graduation photo
At our high school graduation ceremony in Germany – that’s Vasilios aka Bill seated in the front row, I’m top left, with John Harrison, a fellow Englishman, in front of me

In my next novel, Murder Your Darlings, due out in December, the action is set partly on the Greek island of Ithaca, in the Ionian Sea. From the outset, I thought it would be fun to hijack for one of my characters the rather beautiful name of my first ever Greek friend, Vasilios.

Although I’ve spent a lot of time in that region on holiday, as well as on a memorable writing retreat organised by Jessica Bell, I met Vasilios decades before in the unlikely setting of Frankfurt, Germany.

Between the ages of 14 and 18, I attended Frankfurt International School (FIS), run on American lines with dozens of different nationalities on its roll, aged 6-18. Vasilios Chakos joined us not from Greece, but from Chicago, where if I remember rightly his father, a Greek Orthodox priest, had been a bishop. (Apologies if any of these details are inaccurate -it was all a long time ago now!)

While in the US, his name had been truncated to the more American “Bill”, and a smooth American accent overlaid on his rich Greek voice. Unlike most teenage boys, Bill had beautiful old-fashioned manners and courtesy, and a kind and generous heart. He had a younger sister who was blind, and who went to a different school, but on the rare occasion i saw them together, I was touched to see how gentle he was with her.

A Class Act

He also had a keen sense of humour, was learned, witty and wise beyond his years, and appreciated the finer things in life, particularly music, language and literature. His singing voice sent shivers down my spine, and he had a great stage presence, showcased when he took key parts in our school musicals, Annie, Get Your Gun and Guys and Dolls. I especially loved his robust rendition of “I’m A Bad, Bad Man”. His performances made him a bit of a celebrity to younger kids in the school, as well as to his peers and to parents and staff.

photo of school production of Guys and Dolls
Bill in the role of Sky Masterson, with Cindy Arenberg as Sarah Brown (right) and Aaren Purcell as a member of the mission. (I was the mission leader, and Aaren and I got a real kick out of wearing those Salvation Army style uniforms, donning them for our yearbook photo.)

Purely Platonic

Our relationship was very close, but always platonic, although I remember once when we were walking across the  campus together being accosted by an elementary school pupil who shouted “Hey, Bill, is she your girlfriend?” His riposte was classic Bill – to quote John Donne: “For God’s sake, hold your tongue and let me love!” That silenced his heckler, though puzzled him somewhat too.

Another fond memory is of our school trip to London in our senior year, when we happened to visit Windsor Castle on 14th November, Bill’s birthday. As we arrived, a military band in the courtyard began to play “Happy Birthday to you”. Turns out it’s also HRH Prince Charles’s birthday, but we liked to think it was really in Bill’s honour. 

Separate Ways

Bill liked to cultivate an air of mystery when he left school, shunning social media as far as I’m aware, and I saw him only a few times after graduation. Twice we met in London, where he was studying economics at LSE. On one occasion someone had just tried to take my purse from my handbag on the Tube and I arrived at his flat in a complete state, but Bill quickly restored my equilibrium with his usual calm and philosophical approach to life’s crises.

Our last meeting was in Athens in April 2003, where my husband and I spent a couple of days on our honeymoon before heading to Lefkas for a week’s sailing which included a stop on Ithaca. We had a very pleasant evening with Bill and his wife, a delightful Greek lady, and Bill and my husband really hit it off, discussing politics and national identity from the Battle of Thermopylae in 480BC onwards.

Catching Up

Fast forward 16 years and I was about to send my manuscript to my editor for polishing pre-publication. I was ready to unveil the details to Bill, if I could only pin him down. I hoped he’d be flattered and touched at my gesture – and it would be a good excuse to make contact. Why had we left it so long?

Despite Bill’s aversion to social media, he’d previously been relatively easy to find on professional websites. Formerly a Greek parliamentary correspondent, he had moved into a career in shipping insurance, in which he was very successful and highly regarded by his peers. I was not prepared for what I found: a sad announcement by his professional organisation, stating that he passed away in January 2018.

I am still reeling from the shock. Bill was always a larger-than-life character to me, and although we saw each other so rarely, he was an anchor. It felt like he was there if I needed him, like the book he gave me one Christmas at school, at arm’s reach on the shelf in my study. 

inscription inside the book
We co-founded and wrote for a school literary magazine – my contribution was angst-filled poetry, his was a lyrical piece about a boat returning to a Greek harbour at sunset, a harbinger of his later career in maritime insurance

Too Late & Too Soon

Bill’s loss is felt around the world, by his family, colleagues and friends. (Here’s a link to the tribute to him from his former colleagues on Facebook.) Although many of our teachers from FIS have gone before us, I know he was highly regarded by them, and they too would be saddened by his departure far too soon. 

And now I’m especially glad that I used his name in my book, although I never got the chance to tell him about it. However, the character I’ve given it to is nothing like Bill in personality, so to set the balance right, I may have to include in a future novel a charming gentleman named Bill with a singing voice like chocolate-brown velvet, and I may even make him a Bad, Bad Man.