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

Posted in Family

Another term, another topic, another school trip…

Sidcup station platform signage, in Southeaste...
The starting point for all my childhool journeys (Photo: Wikipedia)

These days, it seems a term does not go by without the children being taken on a school trip. This policy is especially valuable in these rural parts, where our children do not have as much opportunity to travel as their city-dwelling peers.  I’m quietly envious every time Laura comes home clutching a permission slip for the current term’s trip. I was raised in suburbia and by the age of 12 I was regularly taking the 30 minute train ride into London to visit museums and parks at weekends. Not only did I travel without an adult, I also used to take my much younger cousins – unthinkable these days for reasons you don’t need me to go into here. But we had very few school trips, and none at all in primary school.

Laura’s school outings are always carefully planned to enhance the term’s topic, and the destination is not always obvious. I wondered where on earth would they go to study the Second World War. It emerged that for visiting schools, the Steam Museum at Swindon will recreate an “evacuee experience”. I had a lump in my throat as I packed her off to school that day. She had to wear a 1930s frock and take a teddy, wear a gas mask box over her shoulder and have a luggage label bearing her name pinned to her cardigan. However did my grandparents cope with those farewells? (I’m thankful that they did: it was my father’s evacuation to the Cotswolds and his consequent love affair with the area that made me realise at a very young age that I wanted to live here too.)

Demonstration of Roman army shield formations
Taking health and safety precautions a little too far on the Roman topic school trip

I thought I’d guessed the destination for Laura’s “Ruthless Romans” topic trip. Surely it had to be either Cirencester, Chedworth Roman Villa or the Roman Baths at Bath? But no, they headed off to foreign parts – across the border into Wales for a fabulous day at Caerleon Roman Remains. The photos of the children dressed as legionnaires made it look as though they’d travelled back in time. It was a trip they will remember for the rest of their lives.

Where, then, would they go for this term’s topic? It’s “The Awesome Outdoors”, and not, as one child first reported, “Automatic Doors”. (Her mother thought this unusual theme would lead to some interesting science and technology lessons. It was several days before she realised her daughter’s mistake.)

I love the alliterative titles teachers give to their topics. It’s great psychology for generating excitement. I wondered where would their “awesome” destination be. I thought about my own travels when I was Laura’s age. I was lucky enough to spend my ninth year in the USA, where my father was working. We saw Yellowstone Park’s geysers, the Badlands, the Grand Canyon, the Great Lakes – all pretty awesome to a child who till then had thought Sidcup was the centre of the world.

Laura produced the note from her bookbag with a flourish.

Spring blossom at Westonbirt Arboretum
Westonbirt Arboretum - just 5 miles away

“We’re going to Westonbirt Arboretum!” she cried excitedly. A pause.“Where’s that again?”

Of course! Where else? The environment on our doorstep is hard to beat in terms of awesomeness. The Arboretum’s education department is second to none, so I know her class will have a fabulous, memorable time and come back filled with wonder.

To children, any trip is far from school if it requires a coach to get them there – and there should just about be time for a sing-song on the way. There’ll be plenty of opportunities for globe-trotting when she grows up.

(This post was originally written for the Tetbury Advertiser, April 2012)

If you enjoyed this post, you might like to read about another of Laura’s outings in The Ring of Truth

Posted in Family

Tuning Grandma’s Piano (The Antidote To Chopsticks)

English: Piano tuner's most basic tools: tunin...
It's not all black and white: inside a piano (image via Wikipedia)

The only thing worse than hearing chopsticks played repeatedly on the piano is hearing chopsticks played repeatedly on a piano that is badly out of tune.

At the turn of the year, my daughter acquires this party trick from a school friend who has learned it from her cousin over Christmas. Chopsticks spreads like a virus among children. There can be few who are naturally immune. Roll on the day when the MMR vaccine gives way to the MMRC – Mumps, Measles, Rubella and Chopsticks.

But as this vaccination has yet to be invented, I decide the most effective remedy for my household is to get my piano tuned. My previous tuner in Bristol having retired, I scour the internet in hope of finding a new one closer to home. To my amazement, I discover there’s one in Didmarton – virtually on my doorstep. A phone call later he’s literally on my doorstep, toolbag in hand.

Clearing the photos and other debris from the top of the piano, I explain to him the history of my particular instrument. As I do, I realise why I’ve been so tardy in getting it tuned: I’m worried that it’s now beyond redemption and will have to be written off. A humble “cottage upright”, it’s not a valuable instrument, but it is precious to me.

Exactly a hundred years old, it belonged to my beloved grandmother, who was born in 1900. Her stepfather bought it for her when she was about eight – the age my daughter is now. In her twenties, she took it to her new marital home in Sidcup. (I can still picture the piano in the corner of her dining room, family photos and trinkets on the top, and I often dream that I’m back in that room having tea.)

Grandma and my more musical cousin

Her husband, my grandfather, was a gifted musician, too poor to afford a musical career, but music was always his passion, passed down the family line. Unfortunately his musical genes passed me by, but I did eventually gain the piano. It went first to my more talented cousin, whose skills soon outgrew the instrument’s powers. A trained opera singer, she played this piano at my wedding reception.

That I have chosen the right piano tuner to revive this family heirloom soon becomes clear. He reveals that his mother was also born in 1900. When I tell him my daughter’s name is Laura, he immediately begins to play the eponymous tune, which I’ve never come across before, declaring it to be his favourite. When she comes home from school, Laura will be thrilled.

Lovingly he coaxes the piano back into good order. He suppresses the squeaks that had lately haunted the pedals. He handcrafts new wooden shafts that give new voice to keys that had turned dumb. In turn, little by little, he brings each note back to just where it should be in the scale.

And then comes the grand finale: that fabulous moment when he shows off his handiwork by playing pieces that test every note on the keyboard. It’s the piano tuner’s equivalent to the typist’s quick brown fox jumping over the lazy dog.

Even if there is no cure for chopsticks, this is a most effective antidote. Thank you, Mr Felton – and may there be many encores.

This post was originally written for the Tetbury Advertiser, a great place to find a piano tuner and many other friendly local service providers!

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If you enjoyed this post, you might also be interested in another post about how my lovely Grandma, contemporary of the Suffragette Movement, taught me to value my right to vote:

I Wear My Vote on My Sleeve

and this one about how one of her old ornaments inspired my new business venture:

The Reading Man