How old will you be in 2023? About to turn 63 as I’m writing this column, I’ve always been grateful for being born at the start of a decade and in the first month of the year. Being a child of the Sixties sounds far more exciting than a child of the Fifties, and it’s very easy to calculate my age at any time.
When I was a child, national and international news featured very little in my world view. My parents took a daily newspaper, but I would have been too preoccupied with my comics to pay much attention to their paper.
Television news didn’t feature much in our family viewing, because it was only on at tea-time and bedtime. If I caught the headlines, it was by chance rather than on purpose, because I was still sitting in front of the telly after watching The Magic Roundabout, or whatever other children’s programme preceded the news in those precious five minutes beforehand.
The gentle humour and underlying moral message delivered by Dougal and friends provided a warm feeling to brace us for whatever bad news the evening bulletin might bring. It was the televisual equivalent of lining your stomach with a glass of milk before a night out imbibing strong drink.
The radio news was even less prominent in my life, and chiefly in the form of The World at One, its opening pips the signal that it was time for me to go back to school after having lunch at my maternal grandma’s.
I’m forever grateful to BBC Radio 4 for scheduling timeless classics such as Desert Island Discs and Just A Minute at 12.25pm each weekday, when Grandma and I would be sitting down to eat.
The theme music of Desert Island Discs still makes me think of cold lamb and bubble and squeak and Grandma’s delicious gooseberry tart with a slightly metallic flavour from being stored overnight in the tin she’d baked it in.
I think Desert Island Discs must have been broadcast on Mondays, when Grandma was serving up leftovers from her Sunday dinner.
That’s not to say that as a child I was completely ignorant of current affairs. I remember Grandma, born in 1900, impressing upon me the significance of Churchill’s funeral as a tribute to a great man and the end of an era. I would have just turned 5. I can even recall JFK’s assassination, more because of the unprecedented appearance in our kitchen of the sobbing next-door neighbour who ran in to break the news to us, rather than because I had any idea of the political significance. Well, I was only 3.
On our weekly visit to my paternal grandparents, my grandfather used to pass me his evening newspapers when he got home from work. Commuting from Sidcup to London, he’d buy both the Evening Standard and its rival the Evening News to read on the train home. I was only interested in the picture crosswords and the cartoons. The hard news passed me by.
How differently will the current generation of children remember national and world news when they’re my age? In our multimedia age, however their parents consume their news, newspaper, radio, TV or online, children seem to have no escape from gruelling and traumatising headlines. I just wish they’d bring back The Magic Roundabout to soften the blow, for adults and children alike.
This article first appeared in the Hawkesbury Parish News, April 2022.
POSTSCRIPT ABOUT HECTOR’S HOUSE
My love of those old pre-news children’s shows is the reason why the village bookshop in my Sophie Sayers Village Mysteries is called Hector’s House.
I’d already decided the proprietor – and Sophie’s future romantic interest – would be called Hector Munro (more about that choice in another blog post here). As Sophie’s late Great Auntie May had been a benefactor to Hector when setting up his bookshop, and had a sense of fun, I decided she would insist that he call the shop by the name of her choice – which was Hector’s House.
Hector and Sophie are not old enough to have seen the tea-time children’s show featuring the amiable puppet dog – but I think Sophie at least would have appreciated his catchphrase and its variants that always closed the show: “I’m just a great big lovable old Hector.”
Every month I write a column for the award-winning Tetbury Advertiser, a not-for-profit community magazine. In this month’s issue, I shared one of my favourite sources of story ideas: eavesdropping.
As an inveterate eavesdropper, I shamelessly raid overheard conversations for fun phrases to put into the mouths of my fictional characters.
While I may not remember a meeting time from one day to the next (top tip: hold all meetings to coincide with elevenses), when it comes to other people’s one-liners, I have the carved-in-stone memory of a Ten Commandments tablet.
In my twenties, I worked alongside an ardent vegan, in the days when this now common lifestyle choice was rare. One day over coffee she announced that she could only ever marry another vegan. The chance of falling in love with a man who met this as well as all the usual criteria seemed to me about as likely as the miller’s daughter guessing Rumpelstiltskin’s name. Twenty years later, I used her declaration of intent as a starting point for “Housetraining Thomas”, my short story about finding partners in my collection Marry in Haste. (In case you’re wondering, my friend she eventually settled for a vegetarian and in true fairytale style they are living happily ever after.)
Working at Westonbirt School in the late 1998, I harvested a great line from former pupil Jane Reid. When compiling alumnae’s memories for the school’s seventieth birthday, I asked, “What’s the most useful thing you learned at school?” Without hesitation Jane replied, “At my prep school, how to steam open an envelope and at my senior school not to sign anything I hadn’t read.” With her permission, I lent her words of wisdom to Miss Harnett (aka Hairnet), the eccentric headmistress in my recent novel Secrets at St Bride’s.
I’m equally insouciant with members of my family. Like Bertie Wooster, I’m blessed with a fine collection of characterful aunts. When my father was reading my new novella, The Natter of Knitters, he instantly recognised a favourite saying of his Auntie Minnie’s, spoken in my story by a character worried about the well-being of a very slender neighbour: “Where does she keep her organs?” In a similar vein, my grandmother, spotting someone bending over would say “Have you seen my nice bottom?”
I wonder whether I shall pass any memorable phrases of my own down the generations? At the moment, the main contender is “Steady, Teddy”, said to any small child who is getting out of hand (and occasionally my teenage daughter). And that, I confess, was copied from my favourite television programme as a toddler, Andy Pandy. Once a thief…
If you’d like to read more of my columns for the Tetbury Advertiser, you’ll find the first six years’ worth in this collection, available in paperback and ebook. I’ll compile another at the end of this year.
Click here to order the paperback from Amazon, or ask your local bookshop to order it in using ISBN 978-1911223030.
For ten years now, I’ve been a regular contributor to the Tetbury Advertiser, a multiple-award-winning community magazine run by the Tetbury Lions. As well as providing a valuable community news service, it donates any profits from advertising to local good causes. I’m proud to be a part of it.
The monthly deadline is around the middle of the month prior to the cover date, so I wrote my column for the February issue around the time of a very big birthday…
When the calendar flipped over to 2020, I was very pleased. I’ve always liked round numbers. 18 days later, another round number was due to enter my life: I was about to turn 60.
It was hard to understand where all that time has gone. But when I wondered why I was having trouble sourcing a new refill for a favourite pen, I realised I’d had the pen for 42 years.
For the Love of 60
Despite my natural aversion to growing old, I have always loved the number 60. Write it in Roman numerals (I’m currently learning Latin), and it looks like the suffix of a luxury car model: LX.
At primary school, 60 was my favourite times table answer. My love affair with maths ended as soon as we got beyond arithmetic.
I also liked 60 because it was the age my beloved grandmother turned just after my entry into the world. Throughout my childhood she was therefore my age plus 60. To my childish imagination, this seemed a significant bond, almost like us being twins, despite her being a Victorian.
The Perks of Turning 60
Back to 2020, and as my big day approached, there were reminders everywhere I went. Signs enticed those over 60 to claim extra points at Boots, 25% off at the local optician, and a significant discount with a railcard.
A few days before my birthday, I found myself in a hospital’s charity bookshop. I’d been meaning to read more Graham Greene since enjoying his autobiography last year, so when I spotted his name on the spine of an ancient Penguin (the book brand, not the bird), I pulled it off the shelf without checking the title.
A Special Vintage
It turned out to be A Burnt-out Case, set in a leper colony in the Belgian Congo. (Whoever donated that novel to a hospital bookshop lacked tact.) Wondering when it was published, I consulted the copyright page. You’ve guessed it: 1960, same vintage as me. At secondary school, I wrote a history essay (possibly with that now empty pen) about the Belgian Congo gaining independence, but I couldn’t remember the year it took place. I looked it up on line. Who’d have thought it? 1960.
Finally, when I woke on the big day, I was relieved to realise that not only did I feel no older than the day before, but that my grandmother, if she were still alive, would next month turn 120 – exactly twice my new age. That pleased me immensely – and made me feel much younger. Then her daughter, my 89-year-old aunt, wrote in her birthday card to me that the sixties are the best time of your life. So, all in all, I’m sold on the idea of turning 60 now. So let the good times roll… and with discounts!
For the Love of Knitting
One of the many traits I inherited from Grandma was a love of knitting – the theme of my latest book, The Natter of Knitters.
It’s now available as a cute compact paperback the size of a picture postcard – the perfect size to slip in a birthday card for knitting addict friends! -, as well as in all ebook for
It’s a quick read – a short novella, about 20% the length of one of my novels – and features Sophie Sayers and friends from Wendlebury Barrow, as well as introducing new ones, such as the officious Mrs Fortescue, organiser of the village yarnbombing event, and Ariel Fey, self-appointed defender of local sheep.
(A post in praise of my two late grandmothers and their different attitudes to matching china tea-sets, crockery and cutlery)
Now here’s a little-known antidote to stress: take a few moments to admire matching crockery, as displayed on the Welsh dresser in my kitchen.
There are many reasons why the sight of this dresser gives me great pleasure:
- a folksy look that goes well with our country cottage
- light and cheerful colours
- vintage design from the 1920s (it often pops on tea-tables in period TV dramas)
- sentimental value, the first pieces being a wedding present from a special friend
- low cost, thanks to a factory shop that sold cheap seconds (sadly now closed)
- ease of replacement via Chinasearch
But most important of all is that it reminds me of tea with my grandmothers, though their attitudes to china were polar opposites.
Grandma’s Matching China Tea-Service
My paternal Grandma favoured matching crockery. She had a classic set of pale sage green utility china which was brought out every Saturday when we went to tea.
For my brother, sister and me were reserved three melamine cups and saucers, long after the age when we couldn’t be trusted with breakables. My brother’s was chocolate brown, there was deep rose pink for my sister and tangerine for me.
Toning tastefully with the china, a stylish set of tiered plates sporting a 1950s fern pattern always graced the centre of the tea-table. The bottom tier was reserved for thinly sliced, fresh-cut bread and butter, with cakes and biscuits of gradually reducing size on the top two tiers. Viennese whirls, Swiss creams and chocolate covered marshmallows still make me think of tea at Grandma’s, served from those elegant plates, and eaten politely all sitting well-behaved around the table, me perched on a stool brought in especially from the kitchen because there were more people than chairs.
The orderliness of the tea-table was as dependable as the bananas offered to the three of us as a treat after tea. Unlike us, Grandma remembered rationing and regretted the prolonged absence of such fruit from her own children’s diet during the war. I didn’t always want one, but I knew instinctively to pretend that I did, and accepted with gratitude.
My siblings and I were born in the same order as her children – my father sandwiched between my two aunts – and it must sometimes have felt like an action replay to have the three of us there, particularly as my brother was the image of my father as a boy.
Equally reliable was her pressing a shilling (equivalent to the modern 5p) into our hands as we left – our weekly pocket money. Our other, wealthier grandparents gave us each a halfcrown (12½p), but I was always careful to show equal gratitude to Grandma and Grandpa.
Mam’s Mad Medley of China & Cutlery
While I loved this orderly tea-time ritual, I also adored my other grandmother’s more anarchic approach to crockery. At Mam’s, we didn’t even have to sit up to the table, balancing our tea plates on cushions on our laps while we watched television. On my grandather’s salary as an accountant, they could certainly have afforded matching china, but it never occurred to Mam to buy it. Every plate in her cupboard bore a different design, and although some cups had a matching saucer, no two came from the same set.
The same was true of the cutlery, some of which was cheap and ancient, imparting like a condiment an odd metallic flavour to each forkful. One year my parents replaced our cutlery and presented Mam with their old, still serviceable stainless steel set. She regarded it with undisguised suspicion.
Having noticed that some of Mam’s china was chipped, I bought her a beautiful bone china cup and saucer one birthday, splashing out more than I should from my student budget. The set was adorned with a delicate lily-of-the-valley designed – Mam loved lilies – and the word “August”, because her birthday fell on August 1st. I thought this personal touch would ensure that only she would ever use it, and I hoped it would enhance the pot of tea with which she fuelled herself each morning before anyone else in the household was awake. She admired it enthusiastically before tucking it carefully away for safekeeping.
Like Grandma, she could not shake off the memories of the Great Depression, followed by wartime rationing. When she died not long after that birthday, not only was the August cup and saucer still in its box, but in her airing cupboard we discovered unopened packets of tea and sugar, carefully stashed away against any future risk of shortages.
Decades have passed now since both my grandmothers died, but I still sometimes have such vivid encounters with them in my dreams that it comes as a shock when on waking I realise they’re no longer with us. And what usually happens in those dreams? Well, of course, I’m visiting their houses for tea.
If you enjoyed this post, you might like other articles about my grandparents:
- Bowled Over by Fond Memories of My Grandma
- Tuning Grandma’s Piano: The Antidote to Chopsticks
- The Scent of a Mummy