Posted in Personal life, Writing

Writers, Stamina & Jane Davis

STAMINA!

Have you go it ? Where does it come from?

At primary school, our headmaster used to say stamina was the secret of success.

This was in the days when schools were obliged to have a daily religious whole-school assembly, and although there were always a couple of hymns and a prayer, Mr Bowering also liked to use the occasion to put across some of his own key messages about life, the universe and everything.

photo of Days Lane School, Sidcup
The primary school in Sidcup where I spent many happy years – and learned the meaning of stamina

His favourite activities included:

  • using a remote-controlled system built into his lectern to illuminate capital cities on the vast wooden map of the world suspended above the platform, and we’d shout out the names of those we knew
    (I hardly knew any of them, and envied Simon Evans his legendary total recall)
  • leading a rousing rendition of William Blake’s hymn “Jerusalem” every Tuesday, an extended assembly to include hymn practice
    (I don’t know why it took me so long to join the WI, when I’ve been word- and note-perfect in its anthem since the age of seven)
  • appointing the King and Queen of the Shiny Shoes every Friday
    (I always regretted never having patent leather shoes for instant, constant shine  – the rich kids had a clear advantage there)

But perhaps his most memorable eccentricity was to impress upon us the importance of stamina if we wanted to be a success in whatever we did with our lives.

“What do you need?” he would bellow to the sea of rapt faces through cupped hands.

“Stamina!” we would shout back, as one.

Photo of budgie
Recollections from an era in which petfood ads offering stamina for dogs and making “budgies bounce with health” (Image by Unmesh Gaikwad via Unsplash.com)

Although I suspect I was not the only child to be a little confused as to what it was. The only place I’d heard the word outside school assembly was in a popular television advert for dogfood, possibly Pedigree Chum, which promised to fill your dog with stamina. This was in the same era as the famous Trill birdseed advert that promised to “make budgies bounce with health”. I imagined them ricocheting off the bars of their cages like the ball bearings in a pinball table.

Stamina as a Writer

image of Jane Davis with pile of books
Award-winning novelist Jane Davis shows considerable stamina herself with eight novels to her name so far

But his saying stuck with me, and it does still spur me on occasionally. So my ears pricked up (that’ll be the Pedigree Chum kicking in) when Jane Davis, author of award-winning literary fiction, asked writer friends to explain the secrets of their writing stamina. I am very pleased that she chose to include my response among her findings, outlined in her latest blog post here:

https://jane-davis.co.uk/2019/01/22/novel-writing-self-belief-and-staying-power/

I hope Mr Bowering would be proud of me. 

 

Posted in Family, Personal life

The Naming of Rooms

My column for the June edition of the Hawkesbury Parish News

Photo of my childhood home in the present day
The suburban semi where I grew up still holds a special place in my heart

Having grown up in a suburban semi, identical to every odd-numbered house in the street (the even numbers were its mirror image), I’d always wanted to live in a house where you couldn’t guess the layout of the rooms from outside. Moving to my Hawkesbury cottage allowed me to achieve that goal.

Here, visitors regularly get lost trying to find their way out.

Our new extension has added a further surprise. Now that it’s nearing completion, we really must start calling it something other than “the extension”. For some unknown reason it’s labelled “the breakfast room” in the plans, although we don’t expect to eat breakfast there. I need to change the name before it becomes ingrained.

I missed that trick with our utility room. Now every time I refer to it, I picture Batman’s utility belt, instead of a laundry.

So I’m going to wait to see how we use our new room before deciding what to call it. I feel like one of those parents who refers to their new baby as “Baby” for a week after it’s born, while trying to decide which name would suit its looks.

I did the opposite with my daughter, naming her Laura some weeks before she was born. What a good thing she turned out to be a girl.

And in case you’re wondering why I named her Laura, and with such certainty, before we’d even met, this post from my archives will tell you:

 Why I Named My Daughter Laura – for Lauras Everywhere

 

Photo of a patriotic house, Union flags flying
My Cotswold cottage is definitely a one-off, and moving to this community inspired me to write my Sophie Sayers Village Mysteries
Posted in Family, Travel

Putting the Up in Sidcup

(This post about revisiting Sidcup, where I was born and raised, was originally written for the February 2015 issue of the Tetbury Advertiser)

 

Cotswold landscape photo across green fields to SomersetM Monument
View from the village in which I live now

“Quaint”, “timeless”, “historic” – all of these epithets will drip from the lips of tourists as they return to the Cotswolds, their numbers growing as the days lengthen. They will inevitably marvel at the ancient architecture and landscape that we take for granted, and they will boost the local economy via our tourist attractions and shops. (That’s always my excuse for splashing out when I’m on holiday: “Just boosting the local economy, dear”.)

When I first visited the Cotswolds decades ago, I would have been one of those tourists. Now that I’ve lived here for nearly a quarter of a century, a refugee from London suburbia, I realise the area is not as static as it looks. Edge-of-town superstores have effected a sea-change, while high streets evolve less perceptibly but just as unstoppably. I can’t even remember now what preceded Tetbury’s Tardis-like Yellow-Lighted Bookshop (was it the bike shop?), which feels and looks, in the nicest possible way, as if it’s been there forever, and I’m glad that it’s there. The same goes for Hobbs House Bakery.

While some changes will always be more welcome than others, it’s natural to be sceptical and even fearful if too much changes too fast, even though change often brings fresh blood, new ideas and younger populations to keep cherished traditions and old institutions alive.

Photo of house in Burnt Oak Lane
The house in which I lived from ages 3-14

A recent trip to the land of my birth – Sidcup, Kent, on the edge of London’s urban sprawl – made me look afresh at the nature of change in residential areas. Many years ago, I was outraged to discover that half the garden of the house I grew up in had been sold to developers. A three-bed semi on a corner plot in a 1930s garden suburb, it had the generous proportions that came as standard in an era when housebuilding land was cheap and plentiful. When subsequent owners built a new house on that plot required the demolition of my old swing, my father’s garage and his beautiful rose bed, I was outraged.

Photo of 52 Corbylands Road
The house where I was born (when it had neither loft conversion, garage nor cars)
Photo of woodland with brook
The brook in which we played behind my Grandma’s house still looked the same

Revisiting just before Christmas with a more mature eye, I noticed that newcomers had addded style, substance and care to the whole neighbourhood – double glazing, extensions, new doors, smart signage. Even the humble bungalow where I was born had been extended upwards and outwards and had expensive cars on the drive. As a child, I travelled everywhere by bus. The area had leapt upmarket, yet the many parks and green spaces remained. I found myself thinking: “What a lovely place to bring up a child!”

 

Photo of 262 Old Farm Avenue
Where my maternal grandparents lived (the house with the blue car)

So I started the New Year feeling twice blessed for the double life I have led: half in the suburbs, half in the country, and grateful for the subtle changes that help both places to evolve and survive for future generations to enjoy.

Photo of 34 Oaklands Avenue
Where my paternal grandparents lived the house with the black front door – it still has the same 34 on the wall by the door as when they lived there)
Photo of Beaverwood School for Girls
My secondary school – once Chislehurst & Sidcup Grammar School for Girls, then Beaverwood School for Girls in my day (and still a Grammar), and now Chislehurst School for Girls
Photo of Days Lane School
My primary school – exactly how I remember it, without the new security gates (not in photo)

Do you ever revisit the place you grew up? Or do you prefer to keep your memories intact? I’d love to hear your story. 

 

Posted in Writing

Hawkesbury Upton, Centre of the World

English: Automobile Association Village sign T...
Surely all roads lead to Hawkesbury Upton?  (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

“Have you ever been to Hawkesbury Upton before?” a small child asked a group of visiting teachers at Friday afternoon assembly.

The teachers, from six different countries, reluctantly admitted they hadn’t. A ripple of “aahs” went round the parents at the back.

The child must have been surprised, because to our village children, Hawkesbury is the centre of the world. Why wouldn’t these people from Turkey, Spain, Italy, Sweden, Holland and France have wanted to come here before? The British Council clearly considered our village special, because they’d made Hawkesbury Primary the lead school in the Comenius Project. (Well done, Mrs Lewis and team, for your hard work securing the €20K grant to make it happen!)

And hadn’t we seen a steady stream of tourists throughout the summer, on a pilgrimage all the way from Bristol to see “our” Gromit? It would seem reasonable to come from even further to see our lovely village, even without a giant blue dog in our midst as bait.

The prime meridian at Greenwich, England
The Greenwich Meridian (Photo: Wikipedia)

When I was at primary school, I felt my home town was the centre of the world. In one respect, technically I was almost right: Sidcup was very close to the Greenwich Meridian.

Not so here. But what better place could there be than Hawkesbury Upton, with its strong community values, endearing customs, indelible sense of identity, village pride, and streets that stay safe even after council cuts plunge them into pitch black around midnight.

If ever there’s an election for a capital of the world, Hawkesbury Upton will certainly get my vote.

(This post was written for the November 2013 issue of the Hawkesbury Parish News.)

Where do you consider to be the centre of the world, and why? I’d love to know – do leave a comment!

Posted in Family, Travel

When in Belgium, Drink as the Belgians Do (In Praise of Oxo)

(The next installment of our Easter trip to Luxembourg, via France and Belgium, with a quick dip into Germany too)

Laura on the Dinant Citadel steps
The funicular railway was due to open the following week. Of course.

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.

The Oxo Tower, Lonodn
The beautiful Oxo Tower (photo: Wikipedia)

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.

Old Oxo ad from the Oxo website
Originally endorsed for its health-giving properties by Florence Nightingale, apparently. Coincidentally, my Auntie Nellie’s full name was also Florence. (Image: http://www.oxo.co.uk)

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.