Posted in Events, Writing

Maybe, Maybe Not – My June Column for the Tetbury Advertiser

cover of the June 2017 Tetbury AdvertiserLittle did I know when I ended last month’s column with a throwaway remark about being more tolerant of May (the PM) because I love May (the month) that the next day the former would call my bluff by announcing a snap general election in June.

Always reluctant to engage in politics and still suffering from over-exposure during the local elections, I was tempted to go into immediate estivation – a word I have the chance to use about as infrequently as general elections come around.

Plus Ça Change…

Shortly afterwards, our household was due to receive a French exchange student for a week. Her stay coincided with the day of the French general election. By chance, my daughter’s return visit will include our own polling day.

Our student went home yesterday, and after a very happy and enriching week for us all, I’m now convinced that we’d all gain a much better understanding and tolerance of other nations and religions if we just ignored the politicians and instead embarked on a massive exchange programme. Walking a mile in other nationalities’ shoes would do us all good. Oh, sorry, I mean a kilometre.

We’d never had an exchange student before, but the school prepared us gently and well with reassuring and down-to-earth tips, along the lines of “Don’t worry if they get homesick, it’s not fatal”. Once we’d got the house clean and tidy ready for her arrival, the week turned out to be far less stressful than I had expected.

Our young guest was a gentle, polite and appreciative girl who tried so hard to speak English that her language skills noticeably improved within the week.

Vive la différence!

We spoke openly about the differences that mattered. For example, we like cats, she prefers horses. We have milk in our tea, she doesn’t. The appropriate treatment of chips, we found it harder to agree on: on our day-trip to Weston-super-Mare for a quintessentially English experience, she insisted on mayonnaise rather than vinegar. But I forgave her when she willingly accepted a stick of seaside rock as a souvenir.

Even our cat Dorothy, normally haughty with visitors, made an effort to bond with our French student, spending most of the week asleep on the guest bed.

Sans Souci

Only once did politics disrupt our week, when she asked to see the results of the French election as they were announced on television. The look of joyous relief that spread across her face when Macron was declared winner said all we needed to know.

(If you want to read those fateful words I wrote In Praise of May (No, Not That One), you’ll find it here.)

Posted in Events, Personal life, Writing

In Praise of May (No, Not That One)

I wrote this column for the May issue of the Tetbury Advertiser before Theresa May announced the snap General Election. If only I’d known, I’d probably have ditched this topic and written about something completely different! 

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

May has always been my favourite month, promising blossom, sunshine and the real beginning of spring.

I trace my fondness for this month back to a special event in my childhood: the May Day ceremony held each year at the infants’ school I attended in suburban London. When I was seven, I was one of a number of May Maidens, decked out in white dresses with floral wreaths in our hair, to process the length of the school field behind the May Queen, to the tune that I will ever associate with that special day, the Elizabethan Serenade.

Cover of sheet music for Eliabethan Serenade
Our old sheet music for piano, bought at around that time

 Looking Forward

This lyrical piece of music was composed by a former English cinema organist in 1951 to herald the new Elizabethan age, a time of forward-looking optimism – just right for May, then. The same composer was responsible for another easy-listening piece, Sailing By, still used to introduce the Late Night Shipping Forecast on BBC Radio 4 – a comforting combination for insomniacs as well as sailors.

By the time I first encountered the Elizabethan Serenade at school, the Queen’s reign was well into double figures, so for me the piece became forever the emblem of a more literal kind of spring.

May the Force

May’s special status was compounded by the words of one of my favourite hymns in our daily school assemblies at that time of year: “May time, Playtime, God has given us May time, Thank him for his gifts of love, Sing a song of spring.”  I’m not sure who I thought had given us the other eleven months, but God obviously endorsed my preference.

First page of piano music
You hum it, I’ll play it…

Decades later, I very nearly named my daughter May, till I realised that combined with the surname of Young, it would make her sound like an item on a Chinese takeaway menu. I imagined her being nicknamed Eggy in the playground, short for Egg May Young.

More recently, I subconsciously shoehorned an optimistic May into my lighthearted new novel, Best Murder in Show. Elderly travel writer May Sayers, who dies before the book begins, creates a fresh start for the heroine, her great-niece Sophie Sayers, by bequeathing her a Cotswold cottage. In my world, even a posthumous May can usher in new beginnings and the promise of something better to come.

May or May Not

Cover of the May 2017 issue of the Tetbury AdvertiserMy irrational attachment to all things Mayish even make me more tolerant of the current Prime Minister than if, say, her name was Theresa Might.

But deep down of course I know that names don’t matter. If I’d been raised in Australia, May would have all the promise of an English November, i.e. none at all.

After all, the composer of the magical Elizabethan Serenade and Sailing By rejoiced under the prosaic name of Ronald Binge. Deeds, not words, as the suffragettes used to say. Come what may…

 

(And in the June issue, I’ll be taking it all back…)