Posted in Family

Celebration Time

A post celebrating wedding anniversaries and other special occasions – with tips on how to pick a date for your wedding

Cover of April Tetbury Advertiser
The closest I’ll ever get to being a cover girl – my column being billed on the front page of the Tetbury Advertiser

Writing this month’s column for the Tetbury Advertiser in the run-up to my parents’ 62nd wedding anniversary, I’ve been thinking about how we choose and mark the days we wish to celebrate.

How to Choose a Special Day

My parents’ choice of wedding date has always struck me as the romantic ideal: 21st March, the first day of spring, subtler and wiser than Valentine’s Day. If a Valentine’s marriage ends in divorce, that day is forever blighted with a reminder of rejection.

For some events we must take pot-luck. My brother had the good fortune to be born on Midsummer’s Day – surely the perfect birthday, half way between two Christmases – whereas my sister’s Trafalgar Day birthday was fitting for the first-born of my father, then serving in the Royal Navy. Continue reading “Celebration Time”

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

Posted in Family, Travel

A Question of Priorities

The first in a series of posts about our half-term trip in our camper van to France, Belgium and the Netherlands

Debbie and Laura at TIm's house
Sometimes only Mummy will do. Me and Laura, when she was less than a year old.

On the first Saturday morning of the half term holiday, Dover-Dunkirk ferry departures are running seriously behind schedule, following a night of Force 10 gales in the English Channel.

Slowly our camper van edges through immigration control, where we learn that the ferry we’re due to catch has been marooned outside the harbour for 10 hours as the sea was too rough for it to dock. In those circumstances, I’m happy to wait the predicted eight hours before we can expect to board.

In the meantime, we have needs which must be attended to. As soon as our camper van reaches its allocated parking space to await departure, my ten-year-old daughter Laura and I nip across to the port’s Food Village to use the loo.

Disappointingly, the enticingly-named Food Village turns out to be exactly like the inside of any British motorway service station. The upside is that we can easily find the Ladies’. Our mission accomplished, I’m just waiting for Laura to finish washing her hands when a wide-eyed lady, aged about 30, dashes in crying “Where can I put my baby down?”

The little girl in her arms is about nine months old. Wearing a plum-coloured hand-knitted jumper and a pink hat shaped like a flower, she looks like an Anne Geddes photo. Someone’s Grandma loves them.

The lady’s eyes become even wider when she realises there’s no playpen or baby seat in which to secure her little flower while Mummy uses the facilities.

“Here, would you like me to take her for you?” I offer, thinking wistfully that it’s been a long time since I’ve held a baby that small.

Without a moment’s hesitation the lady thrusts her baby into my arms and dashes into a cubicle. After a moment, she starts talking loudly to me through the door, and I realise that she’s seeking reassurance that I’m still there. I answer immediately to make it clear that I haven’t fled with her baby and leapt on a ferry to parts unknown.

Baby Laura reading a grown-up book, aged less than 1
Laura, seeking wisdom from books at a very early age.

Her baby, meanwhile, is unperturbed, responding to the unfamiliar setting as if it’s a giant activity centre. She turns her little head towards the source of each new sound, open mouthed with wonder – roaring hand-driers, fizzing taps, sliding door bolts and slamming doors. She is too preoccupied to notice that I’m not her mum.

After a minute or two, the lady emerges from her cubicle at a more relaxed pace than that of her arrival. Then on catching sight of me with the baby, she goes rigid with horror.

“Oh my god, I’ve just realised what I did there!” she gasps. “I just gave my baby to a total stranger! I was that desperate!”

I smile indulgently.

“Don’t worry, we’ve all done things like that,” I tell her, nodding towards Laura to indicate that I’ve been there, done that, and that my baby lived to tell the tale.

Laura on the Dover-Dunkirk ferry
Laura on the Dover-Dunkirk ferry at last, pulling out a few stowaways from her bag

But I know very well how her heart must be pounding, as mine did one day when Laura was tiny, and I left her outside a shop in her buggy in the care of her father. When I came out, they were gone, and I fell into a wild panic. Logically I knew that nothing terrible could have happened – they hadn’t really been kidnapped by aliens and there was a rational explanation for the empty space where I’d expected to find them. Even so, I started running tearfully from shop to shop, stopping only when I found Laura safe and sound a few doors down. She was cooing happily in her buggy in a men’s clothes shop, overseen by the shop assistant, while her Daddy was calmly trying on a pair of trousers in the changing room. I was horrified. It was at that moment that I realised the full force of maternal instinct and the power it had to overwhelm reason.

In Dover’s Food Village, the flowery baby, perhaps suddenly realising the enormity of the situation, starts to cry. I’m relieved to return her to the familiarity of her mother’s arms and to lead my own child back to the haven of our camper van.

Coming next: how our lack of forward planning means we end up in Belgium instead of France. 

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Posted in Family, Writing

The Only Certainties in Life: Birthdays and Taxes

My mum and my daughter together
My mum gets an 80th birthday hug from my daughter, who’s still wearing her Christmas onesie

Yes, I know the REAL saying is “there are no certainties in life but death and taxes,” but I’m an optimist, and without birthdays there would be no deaths, so take that, Benjamin Franklin!

There’s been an air of finality in  my study this week, because since my last post here I’ve despatched two things that I was glad to see the back of:

  1. January
  2. my tax return

The only redeeming feature of January is my birthday, which leaves the last two weeks of the month with nothing positive about them at all.

Actually, when you get to my age, even a birthday isn’t something to celebrate, other than to rejoice in the fact that you’ve made it through another year without necessitating an obituary – UNLESS of course it is a very special birthday, preferably with a 0 at the end.

Celebrating My Mum’s 80th Birthday

Such was the most recent birthday of my lovely mum, who celebrated her 80th birthday on 31st December. When your birthday falls on the last day of the year, you can’t avoid celebrations even if you want to, as most of the rest of the country will be marking the day in style.

Photo of Oil of Ulay before it was rebranded OlayLike my father who turned 80 in September 2012, my mum is an inspiration to anyone who is frightened of old age. While a lifetime Oil of Olay habit (branded Oil of Ulay when she started using it, before pan-European labels mattered) might account for her flawless, smooth complexion, I don’t think even that old beauty trick can take the credit for her lively mind and spirit, and her willingness to tackle new challenges.

Her special request for her 80th birthday present was her own laptop, so that she could computerise the stories she’s drafted over the years by hand. We bought her a small, feminine netbook in a smart shade of red. 

My mum learnt to type on what my 10-year-old daughter recently referred to as “one of those keyboards that goes ping” – a manual typewriter. The class learned to type to music, carefully chosen to match their target keystroke speed.

selfie of the author and her mum
Me & my mum celebrating her 80th birthday with a selfie

As anyone of the same vintage will know, typing on a  typewriter requires a much stronger fingerstroke than a computer keyboard. It took her a little while to adjust to her netbook’s sensitivity, but she’s taken to the technology enthusiastically.

Not one to shy away from other modern trends, she also joined me in a “selfie” on her special day, and admired her grandchidren’s Christmas onesies.

I wonder what new skills and interests I’ll be acquiring when I’m her age? It’ll be the year 2040 then. Wherever technology takes us, I think I’d better invest in some Oil of Olay before it’s too late…

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Posted in Family, Reading, Writing

In Praise of Public Libraries (For National Libraries Day)

The author, aged about 2, in the garden with her teddy
Tea with teddy. It was a big treat to be allowed to read at the table.

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.

Procession of children in traditional May Day ceremony at English primary school
Me, centre, being a May Maiden, with Days Lane infant school in the background

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

Old-fashioned wooden library filing drawers, viewed from the front
File under nostalgia

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.

Cover of The Glass Slipper by Eleanor Farjeon
One of my favourite books

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.

Me, centre, aged 6, as a May Maiden on the school field
Another scene from my happy childhood. It was always summer when I was a child

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:

Bowled Over By Fond Memories of My Grandma

Let It Snow: My Best Childhood Memories