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

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cover of The Pride of Peacocks
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Posted in Family

Like Peas in a Pod

My column from the June issue of the Hawkesbury Parish News

Photo of Debbie's dad by Land's End sign
No, he hadn’t just walked all the way from John O’Groats

When I posted a photo of my dad on Facebook yesterday, a friend who hadn’t seen him for decades remarked how similar we are. That’s nothing, I told her – you should see how much I resemble his mother. I added a picture of my Grandma, aged 60 when I was born, by way of demonstration.

Only then did I realise that my older brother is about to turn 60, and how much he looks like our father and our grandfather. When family resemblances are so strong, it’s easy to see why older people often call relatives by the wrong names. Grandma often resorted to a roll call of possible candidates, stopping only when she hit the right person: “Thelma, Sheila, Merna, Mandy, Debbie.” At least she didn’t include the cat, unlike my friend’s mother, much to her disgust.

old photo of my Grandma
My Grandma

When did my brother and I become this old? I should take comfort from recent reports that no-one should now be considered old until they hit 85. I prefer my own definition, which works on a sliding scale of my current age + 10 years. The elegance of this system is its “jam tomorrow” principle: by definition, I will never grow old.

I also recommend the ploy of marrying a Mr Young, another way to ensure I remain forever Young. It’s also a great incentive to avoid divorce.

With my husband on our wedding day
I knew there was a good reason for doing this…
Posted in Family

Vote, Vote, Vote…

My polling card

As anyone living in the UK will know, today there is a General Election. Opening the shutters this morning to glorious sunshine rather than the grey rain of the past few days, I wondered to what extent the fine weather would influence the end result, encouraging more people to go out to vote. 

Suddenly an old playground skipping rhyme popped into my head. The rhyme probably represents the dawning of political consciousness in my childhood – that and the fact that our local MP, Edward Heath, had been persuaded to open my brother’s school’s summer fete.

While I’m usually glad to hear my daughter (11) play clapping or skipping games that I recognise from my own childhood, this is one that I hope has by this election become obsolete.  it’s a group game, played with a very long rope, with children lining up for their turn to jump in. The name in the verse changes, according to who is skipping, and the last line is shouted as the skipper leaves the turning rope.

Vote, vote, vote for little Debbie

Calling Debbie at the door

For Debbie is the lady 

Who is going to have a baby

So we won’t vote for Debbie any more!

CHUCK HER OUT!

A decade after I last jumped to this rhyme, our country’s first female prime minister was elected: Margaret Thatcher (aka “Milk Snatcher” for abolishing free school milk for children while Minister for Education). I was astonished to discover just now that she was a year younger than me when she came to power. That would have precluded her from having babies during her term of office. Which might be one reason it took us 13 long years to chuck her out.

Whatever your political affiliations, if you are a British citizen of voting age, please make sure you use your vote. Elections really aren’t a game, as I learned from my grandmother (born 1900). She had to wait till the age of 28 to be allowed to vote. Read more about her experience and influence on my political thinking in a post that I wrote during the previous General Election: I Wear My Vote On My Sleeve

Posted in Family

The Scent of a Grandma

Picking up on the thread from my Mother’s Day post, The Scent of a Mummy, I’m reporting here on a memorable meeting with my late Grandma’s cousin Nina.

Nina and Laura together
It seems Nina (98) and Laura (11) share the same smile genes

It was with some trepidation that I offered to take my Auntie Thelma (my father’s younger sister) on a round-trip to Minehead, on the Somerset coast, to visit her mother’s (my grandmother’s) cousin Nina.

Outings with Auntie Thelma are always good fun. She’s good company, generous, funny and liberal-minded, and from since I was very young, she’s been more influential on me than perhaps she realises. She’s introduced me to different arts and crafts concepts, taken me to terrific museums and galleries, and helped shape my aesthetic tastes. She’s also inspired me with her endless creativity and application to the arts and crafts that she enjoys producing herself – much like my dad. (There’s a post here celebrating my father’s many talents.)

Next Best Thing to Visiting Grandma

Old photo of Nina aged 20
Nina at the age of 20

So it wasn’t Auntie Thelma’s company that made me nervous, but the prospect of meeting for the first time a lady who was my Grandma”s cousin. Grandma died when I was 12. We were very close, and I still often dream at night of going to her house to tea, and wake up disappointed to realise I can no longer do that in real life. Grandma was born in 1900 (a very neat achievement, I’ve always thought), so would have been 114 if she were alive today. Nina, by contrast, at just 98, is a spring chicken. She is however the oldest person I have ever met. Born in 1916, meeting her was a useful opportunity for my daughter Laura, who is studying the First World War at school this term. We took a special photograph of the two of them together for Laura to take into school the next day for show-and-tell. Her classmates were impressed.

Nor was I anxious about being in the company of a very old person. I love old people, and for years was good friends with my next-door neighbours in Hawkesbury Upton, James and Hester Harford, who when they died in 2000 wer aged 96 and 90 respectively.

Why So Nervous?

old photo of my Grandma
My Grandma

So why the big build-up? It was because the only photograph that I’d seen of Nina made her look very much like my Grandma. I thought it might be emotionally overwhelming to meet someone who was Grandma’s spitting image, not least because it would fill me with remorse for having never made the effort to meet Nina before.

As it turned out, Nina didn’t remind me of Grandma visually (although comparing her photo with Grandma’s I still see a resemblance). But she shared my Grandma’s quick wit, dry humour and candour, and I really enjoyed her company. Although she is less mobile than she’d like to be, using a tea-trolley in lieu of a zimmer frame to get around the house, she is absolutely on the ball, and her conversation is wide-ranging, evocative of past times but anchored in the present, seasoned by the self-knowledge of a very old lady looking back.

A Lovely Afternoon

Selfie of Grandma's cousin Nina, my aunt, my sister, my daughter and me
The four-generation selfie

We enjoyed lunch together, and after a couple of hours took our leave, wary of wearing her out, but not before we’d taken plenty of photographs, both of her old family portraits – there’s a stunning picture of her when she was 20 – and of ourselves as a group: Auntie Thelma, my sister Mandy, my daughter Laura and me. There can’t be many 98 year olds who enjoy being part of a selfie.

But the visit was not without its emotional trauma. Having parked outside her apartment block (an elegant building with a view of the sea), as we stood waiting for her to answer the door, I was overwhelmed with a strong perfume that suddenly descended upon me like a cloud for no apparent reason. It was an overpowering floral scent. One moment it was not there; the next it engulfed me.

A Fragrant Mystery

I couldn’t quite identify the fragrance. It was neither honeysuckle, nor freesias (my Grandma’s favourite scent), but it was equally heady, yet I didn’t spot any immediate cause of it in the plain, paved yard in which we were standing.

More formal photo of Nina, Thelma, Mandy and Laura
Four generations, total age nearly two and a half centuries

Then Nina opened the door, we went in, and in the flurry of greetings, I neglected to mention the perfume to anyone else, to see if they’d noticed it too. (I did however doubt my sanity for a moment, because a former boss of mine, the editor of a magazine I worked on decades ago, told me with the benefit of his previous career as a psychiatric nurse that olfactory hallucinations, to use his technical term, was a sign of madness.)

It was only days later, having opened a purchase that I’d made on the bric-a-brac stall at a village fete on Saturday, that I realised which flower it was. What I’d bought was a richly-scented Penhaligon candle, still in its box. Its perfume, exuding so powerfully from the packaging that you could almost see it, was Lily-of-the-Valley.

And then the connection hit me: that this was the fragrance that engulfed me as I stood on Nina’s doorstep. And what you need to know to realise why this connection was so extraordinary is this: my beloved Grandma’s first name. It was – of course – Lily.

Posted in Family, Personal life, Reading, Writing

Branching Out from Books

Kideeko logo   An update about one of my freelance writing projects   For the last year or so, I’ve been writing a regular column for a British online parenting magazine called Kideeko (www.kideeko.co.uk). I first became involved with Kideeko when I was still working part-time at the children’s reading charity Read for Good. At first, I was writing exclusively about children’s books and reading, fuelled by the knowledge and experience I’d gained through my work at Read for Good, and these articles provided a valuable opportunity to raise awareness before a family audience of Read for Good’s excellent work. For those of you who don’t already know, Read for Good is a UK national charity which exists to promote reading for pleasure among children. There are two distinct parts to the charity, which is funded entirely by donations (it’s easy to donate online via their websites):

  • Readathon, which provides schools with free materials to runs sponsored reading schemes in thousands of schools all over the country, at any time
  • ReadWell, which takes free books and storytellers into children’s hospitals to make life better for young patients, their families and their carers

In the three and a half years that I worked for Read for Good, I learned what I had already known instinctively: that books change lives for the better, in all kinds of ways.

Growing Up With Books

Page from Teddy Robinson book that has been coloured in by a young Debbie
An early indication of my love of books: enthusiastic colouring

My own life experience endorses that view. I was a lucky child: I was brought up in a house full of books, taken on regular visits to the local public library and had my own bookshelves in my bedroom. Books were valued and reading always encouraged. Whether sharing books with other members of the family, listening to stories on the radio or on vinyl records (no CDs or iPods in those days!), or reading alone, I grew up loving books. It was no surprise to anyone when I chose English Literature for my degree, or when my career revolved around writing, at first under the guise of trade press hack and PR consultant, and latterly as a published author, journalist and blogger. Although Kideeko’s editor has now asked me to address broader parenting topics, the joys of children’s books and reading are never far from my mind whenever I’m writing about children. (I also write for Today’s Child Magazine, available in print and online.) For evidence, you have only to read my article about Mother’s Day in Kideeko‘s March issue, in which I hark back to treasured moments sharing books and stories with my mum. You can read that column here: Making Mother’s Day

My mum and my daughter together
An 80th birthday hug from her granddaughter in a Christmas onesie

In the meantime, I’m looking forward to sharing Mother’s Day with my child, as well as my mum, this Sunday, and I wish a happy Mother’s Day to mothers everywhere. If you’d like to read more about my lovely mum and daughter, here are some past posts about them: The Scent of a Mummy – remembering my grandmothers’ and mother’s perfumes The Only Certainties in Life: Birthdays and Taxescelebrating my mum’s 80th birthday Father’s Day To Followmy daughter’s take on such celebrations