Posted in Writing

Reverting to Type

English: Vector typewriter
(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

We’re all used to October being a month of change, with leaves changing colour and clocks turning back, but for me this month heralds an even  bigger transformation than usual: I’m giving up my part-time day job to write full-time.

I’m very excited at this prospect. It’s something I’ve wanted to do since I was a child, when I remember being made to read to the whole of my infants’ school a story that I’d written about a witch.

I’m slightly embarrassed to have taken nearly half a century to achieve my childhood dream, but according to an informal survey I’ve just conducted, I’m actually ahead of the game. Although my friends remember their early career ambitions, few have yet to fulfil them.

Which is probably just as well, or the world would be overcrowded with ballet dancers, gymnasts, engine drivers and airline pilots. The good news is that there would also be plenty of air hostesses to look after the pilots, and enough hairdressers to keep them all well groomed.

Some of my friends’ ambitions were less predictable. Libi, for example, planned to be either a nun or a stripper, whereas Norio was torn between a fashion designer and “a digger of wells in Africa”.

Sam’s objective was admirably broad: “I wanted to be everything.” Cleverly, she has achieved her aim, at least by proxy: she became a careers advisor.

But even Sam’s ambitious plan was trumped by my friend Lucienne’s.

“I wanted to be the Queen,” she confessed. “I am very disappointed that I am merely a writer.”

Well, that’s put me in my place!

story in my exercise book fro

With thanks to everyone who took part in this survey: Jo, Liz, Jacky, 2 x Jackies, Kate, Claudia, Jade, Jo, Craig, James, 2 x Sandras, Libi, Letty, Liz, Simone, Sam, Lorraine, Norio, Sue, Charlotte, Beth, Maurice, Stephen, Cindy, Sara, Debbie, Jim, Corrina, Susannah, 2 x Louise, Beverley, plus lots of others who did go on to become writers even if it wasn’t their childhood ambition: Helena Mallett, Joanne Phillips, Catriona Troth, Lindsay Stanberry Flynn, Christine Nolfi, Linda Gillard, Bart van Goethem, Peter St John, Stuart MacAllister, Darlene Elizabeth Williams, Dinah Reed, Anna Belfrage, Caz Greenham, Bobbie Coelho, Carol Edgerley  & Alison Morton!

(This article first appeared in the Hawkesbury Parish News, October 2013)

Posted in Family, Personal life

My Gooseberry Harvest

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Unlike their camouflaged green cousins, red gooseberries are easy to spot amongst the thorns.

Picking gooseberries in my garden today for the first time in years, I murmur (with apologies to Dylan Thomas) that gooseberries do not go gentle into that dark night (of my deep freezer). I’d forgotten just how painful they are to pick, due to the long, sharp spines cunningly interspersed between the fruits.

In the early evening sunshine, it’s a battle of wills. I want to harvest its fruit at the peak of ripeness, before the forecast thunderstorms arrive and turn their now firm berries to mush, but the spiny bush seems determined to repel me. But I don’t give up. To stop myself fretting about how much time it’s taking, I fall to thinking of when I first became aware of gooseberries, when I was a child.

Forbidden Fruit

There was a neat grid of soft fruit bushes at the bottom of our next door neighbour’s garden. The man of the house tended his soft fruit carefully, and I watched the berries fatten from a distance. Although I was friendly with his children, and used to go next door to play, I was never allowed to taste a single berry; nor were his children allowed to pick them from the bush. They were forbidden fruit.

Old photo of Grandpa and Grandma
My Grandma and Grandpa, around the time I went to their house for school dinners every day

But I did get to taste gooseberries regularly at my Grandma’s house, where I went at school dinner time every day during my primary school years. (In those days, it was a case of eat school dinners or go home – I don’t know why packed lunch was not an option.)

Grandma’s gooseberry tart was sublime. She baked it in an old-fashioned dish, which lent a not unpleasant tinny flavour to her delicious pastry. After it was cooked, she sprinkled caster sugar over the top, which pooled in little indentations where the pastry lid undulated over the gooseberries. We’d eat the pie cold, as she’d have made it for Sunday dinner with my Grandpa the day before. From the first bite, its chilled acidity coated the inside of my mouth. As I ran back up the road for afternoon school, I carried the delicious tang with me. I can even taste it now.

Cottage Garden Idyll

20 years later, finding soft fruit in the garden was one of the reasons that I was desperate to buy the cottage I live in now. For a long time, I had enough blackcurrants, redcurrants, gooseberries and raspberries to justify jam-making. By the end of August, one shelf in my larder had the look of a jewellery box about it, rich colours shining out through deep rows of neat glass jars.

But about ten years ago, these bushes reached the end of their natural lives. In the interests of crop rotation, their former beds were designated for less beautiful foods – potatoes, courgettes, beans. All useful staples but none to make your colander look like you’ve plundered Aladdin’s cave.

Then last year a kind gardening friend bestowed upon us some surplus soft fruit plants. Thanks to the wet spring and recent heatwave, I’m now able to pick my own blackcurrants, raspberries and gooseberries for the first time in a decade.

Sharp Reminder

A decade is long enough for me to have forgotten how prickly gooseberry bushes are. Picking gooseberries is as hazardous as clipping a hedgehog’s toenails. My arms and hands are quickly etched with scratches.

These fat red fruits may be raging against the dying of the light, but soon they’ll be in the dark depths of my freezer (not quite enough for jam this year). In a few months’ time, I’m planning to rustle up my own gooseberry pie. On a dark winter’s day, it’ll be a great way of bringing back memories of this summer’s heatwave – and, from a much more distant past, the warmth of my grandmother’s love.

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If you enjoyed this post, you might like to read:

 Bowled Over By Fond Memories of My Grandma.

Posted in Family, Writing

Young By Name, Old Enough for Memoirs?

How old must you be to start writing your memoirs?

The author, aged about 2, in the garden with her teddy
“Teddy and I miss the good old days of rusks and bottles of milk.”

My parents have recently announced that they’re writing theirs. I’m looking forward to reading them to find out whether their memory of my childhood chimes with mine.

My father is 80 and my mother is 78, so they should have plenty of material.

But I started writing a memoir when I was still in my 30s. I was just settling into my new life in the village of Hawkesbury Upton, and all was new and strange. At the time, I didn’t realise how young 30-something would seem to me as I got older, nor how much adventure and change was yet to come.

My daughter occasionally brings to light a treasured memory from her childhood, recalled in a fond nostalgic voice as if speaking of ancient times. She is 10.

Too Much, Too Young?

It’s easy to condemn as vain celebrities who write their memoirs at a very young age. But is it really vanity that drives them, or  pessimism, based on the assumption that the only way is down? I don’t blame them for wanting to capture every golden moment for fear that it might evaporate or be forgotten.

Cover of Kenneth Branagh's autobiography.
Aged 30, the actor Kenneth Branagh published his autobiography. He was born the same year as me.   I approve of the optimistic title: “Beginning”.

Unless your personal memory has the capacity of a sky drive, I reckon it’s worth writing down your memories as you go along. For most of my life I’ve kept diaries, more recently migrating to blogging. I’m very thankful for  the technology that ensures my recollections will remain legible. Sadly, most of my journals are not.

Your memories will never be as clear again as they are now. Or will they? A few years after my uncle died, my aunt dropped into conversation “I know him so much better now”. Having since been widowed myself, I know just what she means. Distance lends perspective, the passage of time brings objectivity – two factors which can only increase your level of understanding.

But hey, if the events of your life need reinterpreting with the benefit of that wonderful thing, hindsight, you can always edit your memoirs later – or write a sequel. You don’t have to wait till the end to write the middle. The old showbusiness adage applies to your readers too: always leave them wanting more.

So cancel my opening remark – I’m not looking forward to reading my parents’ memoirs. What I really want to read is the sequel.

As to the memoir I wrote in my 30s, I’d put it away and forgotten about it. Then recently rationalising my study, I rediscovered it in a dusty old folder. I was astonished at how much I’d forgotten. So, for the sake of posterity,  I’ve been posting chapters to my blog  – just click a chapter title to open the chapter.

Hawkesbury Tales: A Memoir of a Village Life

Who Will Buy?

Give A Fox A Bad Name

Damp

I Decide to Join the WI Choir (just added today)

Posted in Family

Let It Snow: My Best Childhood Christmas Memories

If, like me, you are worrying about whether you’ve got the right Christmas presents for your children, you should stop right now.  Because thinking back to my childhood, I’ve realised that all the best Christmas memories have nothing to do with the presents.  In fact, I can hardly remember what they were, though I’m sure I had my fair share.

BABYCHAM DAYS

My fondest recollections are mostly about special events with my family. There was the year that my cousins Jackie and Fred came to us for Christmas dinner.  As the youngest in a crowded house, the three of us, aged about four to eight, were given our Christmas dinner around the coffee table, along with a miniscule bottle of Babycham and three liqueur glasses – unthinkable now, but a pretty good strategy on my parents’ part to guarantee a quiet Christmas afternoon.  Not long after, my cousins emigrated to Canada, making this one-off event an extra-special memory.

AVON GIFTS FOR GIRLS

Then there were the predictable annual visits from other less adventurous relatives. Auntie Shelagh and Uncle Alan, with their brood of four, would come to deliver an assortment of Avon products – for the girls, a peach-shaped soap on a rope or a bottle of cologne with a peach-shaped plastic stopper that I’d try to make last all year.

SEEING THE LIGHTS

Journeys to and from relatives were fun when there were Christmas trees to count in the windows of the houses we’d pass, walking Scout’s page (ten steps walking, ten steps running) to keep us warm.  This was another smart strategy on my parents’ behalf to stop us clamouring to get the 51 bus instead, though our family fare would have been just 1/2d (“two fours and three twos, please”).

But there were bigger trees to admire.  One special night each December, we’d catch the train from Sidcup to London Charing Cross, half an hour’s ride away.  We’d stroll through the West End, admiring the lights put up to decorate Oxford Street and Regent Street.  These days they are a disappointment, with the same pattern echoed along each road, but in those days, every string was different.  We were dazzled by simple 1960s technology: coloured light bulbs on a wire. After that, we’d head to Trafalgar Square, a stone’s throw from our train home, and admire Norway’s annual gift to our country: a huge Christmas tree that seemed nearly as big as Nelson’s Column.  We never tired of joining in the community carols around it.

SCHOOL CELEBRATIONS

Then there were school festivities to enjoy.  For one infant school Christmas party, we were excited to be allowed to make a hat on a theme of our choice out of crêpe paper.  I remember being incredulous that the teacher did not recognise the inadequacy of yellow paper for my requested nurse’s hat.  Presumably all the white had been used up for the inevitable scissored paper snowflakes that adorned the school hall.

It was also at infant school that I first became aware of the power of Christmas carols to move an audience.  As I stood on the stage with my friend Patrick, both of us chosen as soloists for “In the Bleak Midwinter”, I found it odd that the grown-ups could look so tearful when I sang what seemed to me  a happy song.  It’s still my favourite carol today, though I struggle to suppress the purist objection that it never snows in Bethlehem.

THAT SPECIAL SNOWMAN

When I was in the juniors, I was thrilled when my grandparents were persuaded to stay at our house one Christmas Eve.  There really was no need, as we lived within walking distance of each other.  Perhaps they came because the previous year we’d been living the other side of the world, in California, and they wanted to make up for lost time. They slept on the sofa bed in the lounge by the tree and must have loved being woken up by us at the crack of dawn (well, maybe!)

Better still, that afternoon, my grandmother volunteered to come outside into the garden to play with me in the snow.  Together we made a real, proper snowman, a little smaller than me, and we dressed it in the pink plastic mac that I’d just grown out of.

BEST CHRISTMAS EVER

But best of all was the first Christmas that I’d been deemed old enough to go to midnight mass.  This was not because I was religious (I’d got over my holy stage by then, fostered by the evangelical church we attended in California), but because I wanted to be allowed to do the same as my big brother and sister, and didn’t want to miss out on this grown-up privilege.

I forced myself to stay awake to trudge the mile or so to the Church of the Holy Redeemer.  This was the plain grey, low (in every sense) church in which my parents were married, we children were christened, and my grandfather was choirmaster. The evening was drizzly, chill and grim as we entered the church, which was bright and warm and welcoming.  We all took the time to admire the colourful crib scene lit up by the altar. The vicar, Mr Daniels, was a family friend, small, rotund and gentle, and it felt more like going round to his house to hear him talk rather than anything religious.

The service came to an end quite quickly (maybe I’d nodded off for a bit), and soon we were all heading for the exit – a black arched door half way down the side of the church.  Mr Daniels had already sprinted round from the vestry to bid us all goodbye there, shaking the grown-ups’ hands and kissing children like me on the forehead, seizing our young heads in both hands to secure his target.

As we’d sat in the middle of the church, we were near the front of the departing queue and stood back as Mr Daniels threw open the heavy door for the first to leave. And then came a moment of wonder that surpassed anything mentioned in the service.  For the churchyard was covered in the most perfect blanket of snow. We all gasped in delight, transfixed by the big flakes still falling steadily against the orange glow of sodium street lamps.  We’d never guessed that the weather could be so transformed in such a short space of time.  You had to admire God’s timing, for there it was – the real evidence of Christmas.  Deep and crisp and even, snow on snow.  The best Christmas present ever.

May your Christmas this year be just as blessed.

(What are your favourite Christmas memories?  I’d love to know!)