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.

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

Posted in Family, Personal life, Writing

Who Am I Again?

View of The Oval, the shopping parade in Sidcup
The Oval:  Sidcup’s  answer to the shopping mall

My mother tells a tale of her first expedition as a newly-wed to buy groceries at The Oval, the little parade of shops in our home town of Sidcup, Kent.

It was the 1950s, still about a decade before the newfangled concept of supermarket shopping shook up Sidcup with the arrival of a tiny Safeway complete with – wait for it – an on-site milk bar, which seemed the height of sophistication at the time. At The Oval, by contrast, the shops and their clientele were small enough for every customer to be known individually and to be greeted formally by the shopkeeper.

So on entering the butcher’s shop that morning, my mother was not surprised to hear the butcher call out a cheery greeting to her mother-in-law. She turned around, expecting to see her new husband’s mother standing behind her. But of course, my grandmother wasn’t there: my mother had just forgotten for a moment that now she was married, they’d both be answering to the same name. She’d been promoted; she was a grown-up.

I had a similar butchers’-shop moment myself this afternoon. I was sitting at my computer, typing away, when I became aware of a rustling at my shoulder. My daughter’s playdate was standing behind me, quietly surveying my muddly desk. She’s a sweet girl, cheerful and well-behaved, so I didn’t mind stopping work for a chat.

“Well, here’s something that’s cool!” she said.

“What’s that?” I asked.

“I’m the friend of someone whose mother writes books,” she said brightly.

I sat back in my chair.

“Oh, that’s nice!” I said. “Do I know her? What sort of books does she write?”

She fixed me with an old-fashioned look, the sort that says “adults aren’t always as smart as they’re cracked up to be.”

Then I followed her pointed gaze to my own book, published last month, a copy of which is now propped up on display at the edge of my desk. For a moment I’d forgotten I was an author. My goodness, I’ve been promoted too. Happy days!

Me at my book launch with some of my books
“I thought it looked a bit familiar!”

If you liked this post inspired by my hometown, you might also like this one: 

Bowled Over By Fond Memories of My Grandma

Let It Snow: My Best Christmas Childhood Memories

And in case you missed it, here’s more about my new book:

Sell Your Books! by Debbie Young

Posted in Family

Bowled Over by Fond Memories of My Grandma

A set of six washing up bowls

I really didn’t need six new washing up bowls. I didn’t even need just one. But there was something so appealing about this neat nest of bowls, quite apart from their low price, that made them irresistible.

Of the two of us, I’m usually the stronger one going round Lidl. Whereas my husband cannot exit the shop without another household tool or gadget, I’m happy to leave with just their fruit, vegetables and chocolate.

“It’s only a bargain if you actually need it,” still echoes in my head: sage counselling from my best friend’s mother, probably the most sensible person in the world.

But I pick up these bowls and turn them round in my hands, pondering why I’m so drawn to them. It’s always a mistake to handle something you’re trying to resist buying. It’s known in the trade as “puppy dog selling”: the tactile experience makes you keener to buy than if you’d just looked. (Ironically, my husband once used this technique to convince me to adopt a kitten.)

And then the penny drops. It is a Proustian madeleine moment. For these simple plastic bowls whisk me back to my grandma’s kitchen. Or rather, her scullery, as she always called it. Born in 1900, she had grown up with a smattering of Victorian vocabulary that never left her.

Old photo of Grandpa and GrandmaTo Grandma, her small terraced house would have seemed modern, being built around 1930, when Sidcup was starting to segue from a Kentish village into a London suburb. For decades, Grandpa walked to the railway station for a civilised 30 minute commute into the City.

The house may have been modern, but it was also compact. The scullery was no more than a narrow galley, with cupboards and appliances down one side and a slim glass-fronted  cupboard mounted on the wall opposite. The appliances were few: a rounded, low, old-fashioned fridge; a small gas stove and a wall-mounted gas geyser to heat the water, its pilot light permanently glowing blue until you turned the tap, when with a whoosh! a little row of blue flames came to life to heat the water as we needed it. A slightly intoxicating smell wafted out as the hot water ran, though not as pungent as the paraffin heater in the bathroom.

Beneath the geyser was a big old white sink, and in the sink lived a plastic washing up bowl. Grandma’s preferred colours for the plastic washing up bowl were a deep rose pink and a peach, which, if melded together, would have combined to make her favourite colour: flame. The washing up bowl of the moment provided a welcome splash of colour in an otherwise grey and shady space, matched only by three bright Melamine cups and saucers in the wall cupboard, where they lay in wait for when my brother and sister and me came to tea once a week. My sister’s cup and saucer were rose pink, my brother’s mocha and mine was tangerine.

In this narrow space, Grandma would potter up and down, busy but contented, reminding me of Mrs Tiggywinkle in her pinny and hairnet. Every day while I was at primary school, I came home to Grandma’s for lunch, looking forward to what she’d produce from her scullery. Her considerable culinary skills had enabled her to feed her young family through the rationing of the Second World War and it was simple, healthy, delicious food. Everything in the scullery seemed old and well worn, from the wavy-edged pyrex pudding bowls to the tin pie-dishes that gave her delicious gooseberry tart a tingling metallic after-taste. I loved them all. Years of having to make do and mend meant nothing was wasted; things were only replaced when really necessary.

old photo of my GrandmaLike the washing up bowl. Grandma showed me how after so many uses the smooth bowl would start to roughen. Eventually little whitened tags of plastic would stick up as the plastic  wore thin. At a certain point – probably every three or four years – she would decide enough was enough, and splash out, so to speak, on another. The purchase of a new one was a significant occasion that made a big impression upon me. I’ve never liked waste ever since – one of the many valuable qualities that I picked up from my dear  Grandma.

But now, thanks to the temptations of Lidl, I am the proud possessor of not one but six new plastic washing up bowls. In Grandma’s book, that would count as a wild extravagance. But I think if she knew the reason I succumbed, it’s an extravagance she’d find very easy to forgive.

If you liked this post, you might also enjoy this one about Grandma’s economic policy for her retirement: A Two-Sheet Solution or this one about her old piano: Tuning Grandma’s Piano: The Antidote to Chopsticks