Posted in Reading, Writing

The Library, the Witch and the Wardrobe

My latest column for the Tetbury Advertiser praises the iconic Narnia wardrobe and public libraries – not as unrelated as you might think.

Vintage cover of C S Lewis's The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe
This edition of C S Lewis’s classic chlidren’s story is the one I grew up with

On arrival at their holiday cottage on Brownsea Island, Dorset, the birthplace of Scouting and Guiding, what do you think was the biggest hit with my daughter’s Girlguiding unit? Spotting copious red squirrels, finding exotic tail feathers dropped by the resident peacocks, or discovering the beach at the end of the garden?

Trick question! Actually, it was finding an ancient wooden wardrobe in each dormitory.

“I’m just off to Narnia!” the girls would call, taking it in turns  to step inside the wardrobe. Their imagination did the rest to keep them entertained.

Variations on the game soon arose. “Our wardrobe takes us to Rainbow Land.” “Ours leads to Hogwarts.”

Did C S Lewis realise what a timeless icon he had created with that wardrobe? Surely the promise of a  secret world of adventure behind a mundane facade is never far from the thoughts of anyone who has ever read The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe – or is that just me?

When is a Library Like a Wardrobe?

Only the other day it struck me whike taking the shortcut to Tetbury Library that this winding, blinkered alleyway leading away from the hubbub of the shopping streets provides a Narnia-like transportation to a secret oasis of calm.

As when entering the  fabled wardrobe, those crossing the library’s threshold will find different adventures according to their character and attitude. But unlike Narnia, where it is always winter but never Christmas, in a public library it is always Christmas. Any day you visit, you can walk away laden with gifts: books to read on free loan, DVDs, games and invitations to courses and events. All you need is the courage to open the wardrobe door and step inside, and, with faith, you’ll find what you’re looking for. And if you’re not sure what you’re seeking, you’ll be readily assisted by expert librarians, who are not likely to resemble Mr Tumnus or Mr and Mrs Beaver in appearance, but they will share their generous and resourceful nature and specialist knowledge.

Keeping the Faith

Only if there are enough people keeping the faith will libraries like Tetbury’s survive. Otherwise they will slowly morph into just another lost mythological world. I hesitate to imagine the conversation with my grandchildren years from now.

“Yes, that’s right, dear. The books were all free. Thousands of them, there were, on every subject and in every genre.”

“Yet people just didn’t bother using them?”

“Yes, dear, and that’s why they shut them down.”

Cover of the latest Tetbury Advertiser
I’m proud to be a columnist for the award-winning Tetbury Advertiser

To me, closing a public library is as unthinkable as locking the Professor’s wardrobe and throwing away the key. Who would want to live in a society in which the most adventure to be had from a wardrobe is assembling an IKEA flatpack?

By the way. I’m reliably informed that there are no witches in Tetbury Library. I’m not so sure about IKEA.

This post first appeared in the September issue of the award-winning Tetbury Advertiser

 

Posted in Personal life

Hung Up On Laundry

My column for the June issue of Hawkesbury Parish News was all about laundry and wardrobes, from ancient times to the age of IKEA

Wearing the ancient plaid at the HIghland Folk Museum, Newtonmore
Sometimes my daughter and I hanker after a simpler wardrobe (at the Highland Folk Museum in Scotland last summer)

Sorting out a big basket of line-dried washing recently, (ah, it must be spring!), I fell to pondering why we have so many clothes.

A bulging closet allows us to get lazy with the laundry. Getting to the bottom of the basket often results in a surprise reunion with an item that’s been languishing for weeks, forgotten, awaiting its turn in the washing machine.

Not so for our Victorian ancestors. Instead of having wardrobes heaving with clothes, needing fancy IKEA gadgets to make the most of any storage space, they made do with a couple of hooks.

I discovered this to my cost when I bought my first house – a two-up, two-down nineteenth century artisan’s cottage. I went to put away my newly unpacked clothes in what I’d taken to be a built-in wardrobe when I viewed the house, wearing my rosy-tinted house-buyer’s spectacles. I found it was just a shallow cupboard with two wall-mounted cup hooks. The cupboard wasn’t even deep enough to accommodate a coat hanger.

It occurred to me that this would have been plenty for the house’s original owner, who probably only had two outfits: workday clothes and Sunday best.

What a simple life that must have been – with so little time required to do the laundry.

For a moment, wearily folding the seventh pair of black leggings to fit in a drawer, I’m taken by such minimalism. But then I realise this justification ranks in the same league as my grandmother’s delight in having all her teeth out: it meant she could eat sweets in bed without worrying about cavities.

Stashing the fourth cardigan of the evening onto my jumper shelf, I decide I’d rather stick with my present lot. After all, the Victorians didn’t take many baths or showers either.

Ikea wardrobe system
If IKEA doesn’t already have shares in clothing sales, perhaps it should… (Pic from IKEA online catalogue)

More posts about laundry (not that I’m obsessed with it, you understand)

How to Cut Down On Laundry (one of my most popular posts of all time)

Why I’ve Given Up Ironing (no regrets there)

Posted in Family, Personal life

We Really Do Not Need Another Reindeer

Plastic toy reindeer from Bristol Zoo
Monarch of the Toybox)

With Christmas still a month away, I’ve been resisting my daughter’s requests to put up our decorations this weekend.  

The festive season doesn’t start until December,  I tell her. No matter how many “Buy One Get One Free” or “3 for 2” offers we see, now is not the time to buy  crackers, tinsel or wrapping paper,

In any case, we already have lots of Christmas decorations stashed away in the cellar. Once we’ve turned our kitchen calendar to its final page, I will bring them back upstairs. When I do, there will be plenty to go around.

Then, at the zoo today, she suggests we buy a plastic reindeer. We really do not need another reindeer. There are whole herds of them in this house, in various shapes and forms. We have more reindeer than Santa:

  • a large cuddly one with light-up antlers the colour of traffic lights
  • a small plush that looks like it’s leapt out of a Babycham advert
  • a Playmobil team of reindeer, complete with sleigh and Santa
  • a bristly creature made of bundles of sticks
  • a family of small straw reindeer that stowed away in our IKEA trolley

How many reindeer does a girl need, for goodness sake?

But then again, for how many more Christmases will my only child be treasuring these childhood trappings of Christmas?

This morning she had a playdate with a friend. Together they retreated to the playroom and all fell uncharacteristically quiet. I asked her afterwards what games they had been playing.

“Oh, we didn’t really play,” she replied vaguely. “We just sat around and talked for a long time. And we flicked through the Argos book to look at Christmas presents. She’s getting an iPod touch.”

Comet the Reindeer with light-up antlers
Comet, the only reindeer whose antlers light up and flash

With a twinge of melancholy, I recognised that this will be her last Christmas in single figures. Then we’ll be on a slippery slope to the teenage years, when her wish-list is more likely to be clothes and make-up rather than cuddly toys and games. Playdates will be supplanted by sessions experimenting with make-up and biro tattoos of boys’ initials.

That is of course as it should be. If she’s still requesting cuddly toys when she’s fifteen, I shall be worried. But I’m in no hurry.

And so on this afternoon’s trip to the zoo, I find myself positively encouraging her to bring home yet another a small plastic reindeer.

After all, it is nearly Christmas.

 

If you liked that post, you might like this one about My Best Childhood Christmas Memories.

Posted in Uncategorized

Say It With (Fake) Flowers

Logo of IKEA

Frankly, I’m flatpacked out. I’ve reached that stage in my life when my home is more enhanced by getting rid of items of furniture rather than acquiring new ones. And I certainly never want to see another Allan key.

But this doesn’t mean my passion for IKEA is abating. These days my visits target the little bits and pieces that fit easily into my Ford Ka – and chief among those just now is the Ikea artificial flower.

An INSET day provides  the perfect excuse provides the perfect excuse for my daughter Laura (8) and I to mount an assault on IKEA. Using her new-found map-reading skills, honed in this term’s topic on “The Awesome Outdoors”, Laura leads off round the store. She is trailing one of of their small  new yellow trolleys designed to hold an IKEA yellow bag once it gets too full of stuff to carry without crippling yourself.

My main prey today will be some fake plants to create an indoor window box effect on the shelf behind the piano and whatever fake flowers are currently in season. (In season? What am I saying?!) Since we acquired them on our previous trip, long-stemmed sunflowers have been blazing in our bay window as if basking in Provencal sunshine. Even though I know they’re fake, they’ve lifted my spirits through the recent foggy days.

Toy cat with fake flowers from IKEAPeering from the top of Laura’s yellow bag is another device of clever artifice: Lulu, her spookily lifelik toy cat. Whever we allow her the luxury of batteries, she purrs and makes subtle little feline moves. She seems an appropriate toy to have brought with us to the land of IKEA make-believe. Lulu is so lifelike that I sometimes place her in public view in our front room, on the windowsill or sofa, to deter burglars.  I am surprised that no member of staff (sorry, co-worker) requests we remove her from the store. Nor does any mad old lady reproach us for animal cruelty. (I was once scolded by a stranger for leaving Laura’ lifelike, lifesize toy collie dog in a hot car.)

Our mission is successful: as a harbinger of plastic spirng, IKEA is serving up a new stock of gorgeous white daisy-like feverfew floers and long-stemmed golden buttercups. I scoop a dozen stems into the yellow bag, where Lulu is now reposing on a flowery fleece blanket (new, £9.99).

Ikea artificial flowers in green glass vaseDecanting the flowers later into my grandmother’s old green pressed-glass vase on my kitchen table, I’m uplifted every time I pass them by. They may not be real spring flowers, but they’re putting a spring in my step.

Psychological research has proven that artificial plants in an office setting have as much benefit as real ones on workers’ well-being. Naff placebos they may be, but placebos work, and that’s good enough for me. Happy plastic Spring Equinox, everyone.

 

(What are your naff pleasures in life? I think we should be told!)

If you liked this post, you might also enjoy: Saying It With Trees

Posted in Family, Personal life

Let It Glow

A set of fluorescent Christmas lights
Image via Wikipedia

You don’t need me to tell you that the autumn colours have been fantastic this year.  Each day late October, early November, I kept thinking “I really must bring my camera with me next time I’m out”. Everywhere I went, breathtaking treescapes of gold, amber and bronze, dramatic as fireworks, rose out of rich, dark, newly-ploughed hills.  Then, overnight, they disappeared.   Strong winds stripped the trees bare, leaving muddy heaps of compost at their feet. It was as if a herbicidal maniac had been on the rampage.  Suddenly it was winter. The clocks had gone back.  And it was dark.

My sense of loss at this overnight tragedy made me less dismissive than I might otherwise have been when a day or two later I spotted my first Christmas tree of the year in the front window of a house near my mum’s.  Not only had the occupants put the tree up on the wrong side of Remembrance Day.  They’d also sprayed lavish drifts of fake snow on the windowpanes, as if egging on the winter to do its worst.  The shiny red stars and golden bells were a garish echo of the subtle russets and auburns of the departed autumn leaves, but boy, was it a cheery sight.

All at once I found myself looking forward to the rash of Christmas lights that would inevitably follow.  Nothing cheers me in winter as much as bright lights.  In a former life I must have been a Druid.  For the rest of the year, my usual mantra is “Put that light out!” (So maybe I was once an ARP warden?) My husband and daughter treat our household like a Christmas tree all year round, in terms of lighting, and for the rest of the year, I go round turning unnecessary lights off, muttering disapproval.  But when it comes to midwinter, I need a burst of light to stop me hibernating.

Certain local routes round here provide a real tonic at this season.  Last year, the white-lit Christmas trees, hung proudly like flags above the shops through the centre of Tetbury, were as cheering to me as any Olympic opening ceremony.  And who can resist the uplifting annual switching on of the Christmas lights?  Passing by the Arboretum, I’ll slow down to savour the “shop window” for the Enchanted Wood, which revitalises bare trees with coloured floodlights.  And just a little further down the Bath Road, there’s an ever-growing beacon that takes many by surprise.  The first time I passed that way after dark, I was convinced that I was about to come across a major conflagration on the road ahead.  I listened out for sirens, but there were none.  Rounding the bend, I discovered it was actually just Willesley’s cattery and kennels in all their electric glory.  Their furry residents must feel ever festive by Christmas Day.

In the past, I’ve shied away from too lavish a Christmas lighting scheme at my own home.  Think Ikea candle arches, and you’ll get the picture.  But this year, in the depths of this dark winter, I feel the need to throw caution to the winds.  That’s appropriate enough, as my electricity comes from the wind-powered Ecotricity in Stroud.  If their profits suddenly go up next quarter, you’ll know the reason why:  I’m planning to splash out this year on the festive lighting front.  Now, can anyone tell me the best place in Tetbury to buy an illuminated reindeer?

Wishing all Tetbury Advertiser readers a very merry Christmas, and a New Year filled with light.  Let it glow, let it glow, let it glow…

(This post was originally published in the Tetbury Advertiser)