Posted in Family, Personal life

How My Childhood Made A Citizen of the World

cover of December issue of Tetbury Advertiser
Click to read the whole issue online

In my Young by Name column for the December issue of the Tetbury Advertiser – written during the build-up to the UK general election – I reflected on how my upbringing has affected my world view – and my love of languages.

From an early age, I counted myself as a traveller. Born in an era when most British families took holidays in their own country, and only one a year, usually in the summer, I had a fortunate head start at the tender age of eight.

An American Road Trip

My father’s job as a computer engineer required that he spend a year in the USA, and he took the whole family with him – my mum, my older brother and sister, and me. Initially posted to Philadelphia, he was asked after a month to relocate to Los Angeles.

Photo of my dad with tour guide looking at old photos
My dad impresses our tour guide on the HMS Belfast with photos of his seafaring days

My father’s natural sense of adventure had been nurtured by his earlier service with the Royal Navy, including two years during the Korean War on HMS Belfast, now a museum on the Thames. He negotiated swapping our expenses-paid plane tickets for petrol, and so began our great American road trip in the family car. Our scenic route was designed to take in world-famous, memorable landmarks such as Mount Rushmore, Yellowstone Park and Las Vegas. Before I turned nine, I had seen more of the US than many American adults.

The Railways of Europe

His subsequent posting to Germany during my last four years of high school saw me hopping on and off trans-European railways in my school holidays, a confident solo traveller. Only recently, as my own teenage daughter started travelling abroad independently, did my parents reveal that they were much less insouciant about my train trips than I was.

East, West…

In adulthood, I have made countless journeys abroad, not only for pleasure. Business trips have taken me as far afield as Hong Kong and the Caribbean. Yet now, with the likelihood of trans-European travel becoming less straightforward post Brexit, coupled with concern for my carbon footprint, my appetite for foreign jaunts is waning.

A World of Languages

graphic of Duolingo owl
The cute Duolingo owl is your personal cheerleader as you learn new languages

Therefore my recent decision to start learning more foreign languages may seem incongruous. I already have some French and German from my schooldays and a little tourist Greek from evening classes, which for many people might seem plenty. But when my daughter introduced me to Duolingo, a free app that makes learning another language fun, she sparked a latent desire. The languages offered by this app are not only the obvious ones from the the school curriculum. Hankering after Hawaiian? Keen on Klingon? Duolingo has those too.

I’m starting with Latin, because I’ve long wanted to have a better grasp of the roots of English. But Latin is only a small part of the picture. Our English language has of course been enriched by many more tongues since the Romans left English soil, via immigrants, invaders and imported texts.

Whatever happens politically in the next few months, nothing can take away our rich linguistic culture. Every time I pick up my pen, I celebrate our long heritage of the blending of Anglo Saxon with French, German, Greek, Latin and many more European languages.

As JFK almost said at the height of another politic crisis, “Ich bin Europäer”.

 


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.

Order from AmazonOrder ebook from KoboOrder ebook from other online stores

Or order from your local bookshop quoting ISBN 978-1911223030.

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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.

Order from AmazonOrder ebook from KoboOrder ebook from other online stores

Or order from your local bookshop quoting ISBN 978-1911223030.

Join My Readers’ Club & Get a Free Ebook

cover of The Pride of Peacocks
Download this free ebook when you join my Readers’ Club mailing list

Click here to join my Readers’ Club mailing list and receive news about my books by email plus a free ebook on joining? 

Posted in Family, Personal life, Writing

Golden Slumbers

In my column for the July-August issue of the award-winning Tetbury Advertiser, I arrived at some surprising conclusions about my erratic night-time sleeping habits.

“If 60 is the new 40” – my spirits lift as I read the start of this meme on Facebook, only to fall at its ending: – “then 9pm is the new midnight”.

Sensitive to the approach of a Big Birthday next year, I reluctantly agree. Once an ardent burner of midnight oil and two-ended candles, the older I get, the earlier my bedtime. Not so for the rest of my household: we operate on three different time zones.

Sleepers

My teenage daughter follows the classic morning-sloth-cum-party-animal schedule.

I could learn a lot about sleeping techniques from this koala, encountered at Edinburgh Zoo last month

My husband, long free of nine-to-five commitments, stays up so late and sleeps in so long you’d think he was working nights. One warm, dry night in May, I was surprised by the sound of a lawnmower starting up after nightfall. Yes, he was cutting the grass in the dark. A few nights later, at midnight he leapt up from his seat in the kitchen, rubbed his hands together enthusiastically, and announced, “Right, back to work in the garden”. Gardeners’ lore states that potatoes should be planted by the light of a full moon, but he’s not growing potatoes. Still, who needs daylight when you have a headtorch?

Longing for my bed by 9pm, I’m first up every morning, yet I’m often awake for an hour or two half way through. Does that make me insomniac?

Wakers

Apparently not. It turns out my two-stage sleep has historical precedence. According to Roger Ekirch, author of At Day’s Close: Night in Times Past, this was how everyone slept until artificial lighting skewed our body clocks, encouraging us to pursue a single shift of seamless slumber. Not only did our forbears to go to bed at dusk and wake at dawn, they also got up in the middle of the night and were active for an hour or so. Many cultures and languages, including Homer’s Odyssey, Virgil’s Aeneid, and Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, refer to “first sleep” (dusk till around midnight) and “second sleep” (early hours till dawn) as if they are the norm. While to twenty-first century ears it sounds absurd for monks to celebrate Matins at 2am, to the average medieval it was a constructive use of standard waking hours.

What You Will

Those without holy orders could do what they liked between sleep stages. Activities that didn’t require illumination would be more practical – and no, not only what you’re thinking: 2am was also prime time for theft. Me, I favour a cup of tea and a biscuit, with a few chapters of a good book.

So now when I wake at 3am, I do so happily, knowing I’m simply following a classic habit enjoyed by our ancestors until relatively recently. Until I stumble across a YouTube interview with Roger Ekirch describing two-stage sleepers as “as not insomniac, but pre-industrial”. Doesn’t that make me one removed from antediluvian? Now I really do feel old.

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Posted in Family, Personal life, Writing

The Other Man’s Grass

My column for the June 2019 issue of the Hawkesbury Parish News

My husband spent a large part of last summer turning our lawn emerald green.

He rolled and mowed and fed the grass so much that our lawn started to resemble the top of a billiard table. Although he had yet to implement the stripes pictured on grass seed and feed packets, that gave him something to aim for this summer. The man in B&Q didn’t know whether he was being serious when he asked for a pack of the stuff that makes your grass grow in stripes.

But now I’ve thrown a spanner in his lawnmower’s works by informing him that, according to The Guardian, the single best thing he can do for our garden’s ecology is to mow only once a month to a height of no less than 10cm (4 inches).

“How can you tell it’s 10cm?” asked my daughter, never having operated a lawnmower in her life. She was ready to lend him her ruler.

Apparently if we resist the lure of the lawnmower, without any further action on our part, our grass will naturally transform itself into a wildflower meadow, benefiting birds, bees and other insects.

So while the other man’s grass may be greener, my husband can claim the moral high ground, environmentally speaking. He’ll also have more time to sit in a deckchair enjoying the sights, scents and sounds of flourishing flowers and wildlife.

And at least our deckchairs are green and stripey.


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Posted in Family, Personal life, Writing

Plus Ca Change

My column for the December 2018/January 2019 issue of the Tetbury Advertiser

Cover of the December issue of the Tetbury Advertiser
Click the image to read the whole magazine online

Crossing to France via the Channel Tunnel the day after Remembrance Day fills me with fin-de-siècle melancholy. This is likely to be the last time I set foot in mainland Europe as an official European. This column is no place for politics, but I mention it because it’s just part of a general end-of-year yearning for time to stand still.

When I was younger, I used to look forward to welcoming each New Year. Now that my parents are in their eighties, I’m conscious of the growing likelihood of less welcome changes as each year goes by. I hanker after reminders of my younger days, when I had less sense of my own mortality, or of anyone else’s.

Plus C’est La Même Chose

Second-hand books in the editions I enjoyed as a child are comfort reads. I enjoy knowing from memory what will appear on the next page before I turn to it.

I rescue from a charity shop a battered bear of comparable vintage to my own childhood teddy. What misfortune befell his owner that this creature should be consigned, appropriately enough, to a branch of Barnardo’s? I don’t want to answer my own question.

photo of two teddy bears
Galloway (left), adopted from the Dumfries Barnado’s shop, with my childhood Teddy

Vintage. You know you’re getting old when artefacts from your childhood are classified thus, as I’m reminded when I scour the internet to replace the Parker Lady pen I had for starting big school. This diminutive black lacquer, gold-trimmed fountain pen (so much classier than a cartridge model, don’t you think?) was just the right size for the hand of an eleven-year-old girl.

My quest isn’t only down to nostalgia. I wish to right a wrong done to me when I changed schools at the age of 14. Another girl stole my pen and claimed it was hers, despite clearly being perplexed as to how a fountain pen worked. As the new arrival, I wasn’t confident enough to contradict her. In a life of few regrets, that’s one of mine. I’m hoping she didn’t just throw it in the bin when it ran out of ink, as we did with the orange plastic Bic biros bought from the school shop. (Plastics recycling had yet to be invented.)

photo of vintage Parker Lady Pen
A design classic – so glad I was able to track one down again

Et Voilà!

On eBay, I find the perfect replacement: a Parker Lady pen so treasured by its owner that he kept it in its original box. I hope it will comfort the seller, the son of the late owner, that this precious pen will have gone to a good home, though I can’t help wondering why a man bought a Parker Lady pen in the first place. A lost love who never received his gift? Perhaps one day I’ll write the story of what might have been.

So as the year turns, don’t forget to cherish the old as you ring in the new.

I wish you a peaceful and contented Christmas, treasuring and treasured by those that you love.