(The next installment of our Easter trip to Luxembourg, via France and Belgium, with a quick dip into Germany too)
Recovering from climbing up (and down) the 408 steps from the Belgian town of Dinant to the citadel that looms over this small riverside town, we head to a cafe to rehydrate.
Perusing the menu, my daughter plumps for Coca-Cola Light (that’s Belgian for Diet Coke). I favour the fizzy mineral water Apollinaris, to echo the Roman theme of the engaging thriller I’m reading – Inceptio by Alison Morton. My husband, not being female and therefore not just glowing from our recent ascent, homes in on a drink to replenish lost salts: an Oxo.
Although this menu does have an international aura, I’m surprised to see Oxo listed. Rightly or wrongly, I associate it inextricably with my home country, having grown up just a few miles from the famous Oxo Tower in London.
OXO & ME
The Oxo Tower, now a fancy restaurant with panoramic views across London, was a familiar landmark on the commuter railway from our suburban home in Sidcup to Charing Cross. At secondary school, tasked with painting a city skyline, I incorporated a meticulous rendition of the Oxo Tower. I was incredulous when my elderly art teacher, Miss Barbara Snook, objected. What was not to love about the Oxo Tower? Not only was the architecture Art Deco, but the lettering was pleasingly palindromic.
Miss Snook admitted that she loved the Oxo Tower; I suspected they’d shared their heyday. But then she memorably explained her reasoning:
“In any painting, try not to include words, because the eye is automatically drawn to the text to read it and is diverted from the rest of your picture.”
She was right. I’ve often recalled her advice in art galleries, distracted by labels, and wished I’d shown more respect for her wise words at the time. It was only after leaving school that I discovered that she was also a world authority on embroidery. Years later, as a belated tribute to her wisdom, I bought from a secondhand shop a book that she’d written about needlework; I treasure it still.
And again, decades later in a cafe in Belgium, I sit recalling her sagacity as we wait for the waiter to bring our unlikely assortment of drinks.
I realise that the only other setting in which I’ve come across people drinking Oxo as a beverage rather than adding it to a casserole or gravy is my grandmother’s house (in Sidcup again), where she and my Great Auntie Nellie favoured it as a fortifying mid-morning pick-me-up. This was the same Auntie Nellie who enjoyed salt-and-pepper sandwiches, so I’d assumed her Oxo habit to be a measure of frugality, acquired during war-time rationing, rather than a treat meriting this menu’s price of 2 Euros 30 cents.
AN OXO EXTRAVAGANZA
When our drinks finally arrive, my Apollinaris is pleasingly labelled “The Queen of Table Waters” . Despite its Romanesque name, it is served in true Belgian style with a tiny dish of bar snacks. But if my drink is the Queen, my husband’s is surely King. Presented in a glass on its own silver platter, it is accompanied by a plastic-wrapped melba toast, a grinder of mixed spices and a bottle of Lea and Perrin’s Worcester Sauce. Getting as close as he ever does to cooking, my husband assembles all the components (they really should serve this drink in Ikea cafes). After the first sip, he breathes out a big steamy sigh of contentment.
“Aah, this is nice!” he declares emphatically. “I ought to drink this more often.”
I’m about as likely to drink a mug of Oxo as a cup of Bisto, but being the dutiful wife that I am, I buy a box of it at the supermarket on the way back to our camper van. The irony is not lost on me that our next destination will be the picturesque riverside town of Bouillon. Better not mention the Oxo.
National Libraries Day seems the perfect time to publish something that’s been in my head for a long time – a post in praise of the public library that I visited regularly as a child.
When I was a little girl, it was my ambition to become a “library lady”. This ambition clearly pre-dated the entry of the word “librarian” into my vocabulary, which suggests just how little I was.
In the leafy London suburb of Sidcup, where most of the housing stock had been built between the wars, I lived within 20 minutes walk from a sturdy, boxy-looking public library. I suspect that it was a classic 1920s style of architecture for public buildings, as was the primary school that I attended (Days Lane), about half a mile away. Down the next road was my grandmother’s house, where I went every day at lunchtime instead of having school dinners.
These three buildings were touchstones of my childhood, and they all backed on to a small woodland. In the spring, the wood was carpeted with wild bluebells. Before regulations were introduced to prevent us picking wild flowers, in May no classroom was complete without a jam jar of these simple, fragrant flowers on every windowsill. I still adore the sight of a bluebell wood; it grounds me.
If this setting sounds idyllic, that’s because it was. It wasn’t just the children who enjoyed these woods. When I was 9, we had a trainee teacher for a short spell, a dark-skinned man called Mr Liverpool. He came from British Guyana (he had to show us on the classroom globe where it was). When I asked him to sign my autograph book before he left, he wrote “I love the woods, the woods of Haddon Grove”. I wonder whether he also loved the library.
Cardboard Tickets, Wooden Shelves
The youngest of three children with a primary school teacher for a mother, I inevitably joined the library at a very early age. In those days, we didn’t have plastic credit-card style tickets to be swiped against a bar-code reader. Instead, the lending system revolved around small cardboard tickets, with little pockets in them. Inside each book was a slender cardboard strip giving the book’s details. When you borrowed a book, you handed over one ticket per book, and the librarians slipped the book’s strip into your ticket. The ticket was filed in date order, according to the return date. These tickets were kept in pleasingly solid, shiny wooden boxes behind the counter, alongside the rubber date stamp and ink pads, which the librarians used to date-stamp the sheet on the flyleaf of your book, to remind you of its return date. I thought the tickets were wonderful.
There were also card indexes, with a white postcard for every book in the library, ranged in racks of wooden drawers. If you wanted to find out whether the library stocked a particular book, you had to search for it among these cards, filed alphabetically in order of author. The drawers made a lovely soft whooshing noise when you slid them open and shut, running on smooth rails. A few years ago I acquired a set of these drawers, out of pure nostalgia, for my study at home. I adore them.
Strictly No Talking
The library counters were golden, gleaming woodwork, as were nearly all of the shelves, with the exception of some low, white-painted, open-topped boxes in which picture books were displayed for the youngest readers. Dotted around the boxes were low stools with colourful tops. That part of the decor was distinctly 1960s (like me). From the moment you entered the echoing lobby the astringent scent of polish invaded your nostrils. The strict enforcement of the rule of silence meant that the only echo should be your shoes on the shining parquet floor.
Filed By Age
Once you’d entered the lobby, your age determined which route you took. Under 12s turned right through double glass doors to the Junior section. Adults went straight ahead, past the check-in desk, to the grown-ups’ section. There was also a Reading Room, off to the left, where people could park themselves at big wooden tables to read newspapers (asleep, if you were Smokey Joe, the local tramp) or consult the huge reference books housed there.
It was a major rite of passage to change the direction of your step from turning right to going straight on. Although I was a competent and eager reader, I remember dreading reaching the age of 12, when I’d be automatically promoted to the adults’ section. There was an advantage, in that I’d be entitled to more tickets (I think you had two as an infant, three as a junior and four as a senior). The tickets changed colour too: children’s tickets were sage green, adults’ were the colour of a digestive biscuit. But I didn’t want to leave the comfort of the Junior section, where I knew exactly where to find my favourite books (The Ship That Flew by Hilda Lewis and The Glass Slipper by Eleanor Farjeon). I couldn’t understand why a boy in my class should be boasting about his preference for the adult section.
Another pleasure in going to the library was seeing my favourite library lady. On the way there, I’d be hoping that she’d be on duty. This library lady had dark, bouffant hair and red lipstick, and she always smiled kindly at me as I shyly proferred my books to be stamped. She lived a few streets away from us and we’d often see her walking to the local shops with her daughter, a docile petite girl with Down’s Syndrome. The daughter always held her mother’s hand and in the other hand carried a large click-shut patent handbag. I remember being surprised when my mum told me that she’d just turned 21. (There was a Down’s boy of similar age, Tony, who lived in the house that backed on to our garden, and he used to come round to play.) My mum would say hello to the library lady when we were out, but I don’t recall ever really stopping to chat. This seemed appropriate, as if she carried an aura of library silence around with her. In any case, I was slightly in awe of her: to me it was like meeting a minor member of royalty on the street.
This lady was my role model for the kind of library lady that I aspired to be. She was always smiling, always kind, but no doubt she had her fair share of heartaches, in those days before political correctness, when Down’s Syndrome was a newfangled expression and we referred to Tony and the library lady’s daughter as Mongols. (On the way to the library, we passed the Spastics Society collection box outside the shoe shop – another long banished phrase.)
I never did pursue my library ambitions, but even now, when I enter a library, I often think back fondly to the library of my childhood, set among the woods where, in my mind, bluebells always bloom. I was devastated years later when I heard that the library had burned down. But I am thankful to live in a country where book burning only happens by accident and we are free to read whatever we want. I bought a battered secondhand copy a few years ago of the same edition of my much-loved A Ship That Flew. The pink-jacketed edition of The Glass Slipper I’m still looking for.
Even so, visiting the library is one of many happy memories that stands out in my very happy childhood, and it’s definitely one to celebrate on this special day. Happy National Libraries Day and thank you, to library ladies (and men) everywhere.
If you enjoyed this post, you might like some of the others about happy memories of my suburban childhood:
When I first started thinking about the imminent arrival of 2013, I didn’t want 2012 to end. For so long, 2012 had been a year to look forward to, full of promise, from that day back in 2007 when London, my home city, was awarded the 2012 Olympics.
Then a couple of years later the build-up to the Royal Diamond Jubilee began. Although I wouldn’t describe myself as a royalist, I was excited at the prospect of living through historic events that people would talk about for generations to come, like VE Day or Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee. (I’m now rooting for the Queen to outlive her famous ancestor and set a new record that will be, by association, ours.)
2012 did not disappoint
These events created some very special memories for me. As the commentators said of the now legendary “Super Saturday” for British athletes, I will be proud to look back and say “I was there”.
Not all my favourite memories of 2012 relate to national events, but my other personally and locally momentous occasions, like the national ones, were planned and expected well in advance:
meeting my Canadian cousin’s daughter for the first time (I hadn’t seen her father since he was a child, in the 1970s)
a visit from my American schoolfriend’s daughter in July (I’d last seen her mother in the 1980s)
my father’s 80th birthday in September
the publication of my first book in October
As yet, 2013 will be more of a mystery tour. It feels odd to be on the threshold of a year of uncertainty, after a year of such precise planning and predictability.
It doesn’t help that I always find odd years disconcerting. 2012 always sounded like it was going to be neat and pleasing; 2013 just sounded messy and vaguely threatening.
But as it turned out, on New Year’s Day 2013 we awoke to blue skies and sunshine for the first time in weeks. This promising omen was echoed by a surge of optimism from my friends and family, cascading down my Facebook timeline and Twitter feed. Everyone seemed on great form and ready for another year of triumph
And all of a sudden, instead of being filled with foreboding as I take down the 2012 wall calendar and flip open the 2013 one in its place, I’m feeling excited and optimistic. It doesn’t matter any more that our national annus mirabilis has drifted quietly downstream into the history books. Starting to fill in my 2013 diary, I’m already at ease with writing the new year’s date – something that usually takes me months to get used to.
I’m sure I’m not the only one to be thinking to myself: “2012? That’s SO last year!”
Happy New Year and may 2013 bring you your heart’s desire.
I no longer have to worry about which events I’m missing if I go out for the evening
On evenings in, I don’t burn holes in my ironing when, so gripped by the excitement of an event, I forget to keep moving the iron
I can take the Union Jacks down from the front of the house, where they’re practically in shreds, having been there since the Diamond Jubilee kicked off this amazing English summer
I’ll save a lot of money on Kleenex, no longer being reduced to tears at least once a day by the athletes’ amazing victories
Shops will return to their usual shorter Sunday opening hours (did you notice that the restricted Sunday opening times were removed for the duration of the Games, in hope of extracting extra cash from Olympic tourists? When were those poor shop assistants meant to watch the events?)
We can reproduce the Olympic logo without fear of being sued
I can once more plan trips to meet friends in London without worrying about being caught up in crowds of Olympic spectators
But – did you guess? – I’m bluffing. I STILL don’t want them to end, even though their closing days have produced so many wonderful memories to treasure. Not least was the Mayor of London’s priceless speech at the Athletes’ Parade through central London today. Only the gloriously brazen, blustering Boris Johnson could get away with some of the things he said – and whatever your politics, you have to love his spirit. (If you missed it, you MUST watch it here.)
If Boris was right about the creation of a new generation on our nation’s living room sofas during the Games, I’m willing to bet that by time the athletes are leaving the starting blocks of Rio 2016, Britain’s nursery schools and playparks will be full of little Jessicas, Ellies, Mos and Jonnies, named in honour of our London 2012 heroes. I hope there’ll be a smattering of small Borises too.