Monday 28 February 2011

Marble Halls and Polly Perfect

I have rather too many notebooks scattered around. Most of them make no sense to me, full, as they are with undecipherable scribble, doodles and cross-hatchings. But one turned up when I was looking in my box of diaries and I've decided to take an excerpt for your delectation. [with some editing of the many swear words]

Time moves so quickly for me that the recent past disappears into a pinpoint. Should I live long enough, say another thirty or forty years, I would remember that time with ease, even be able to put faces to the names I rediscovered in this little black book, but for now all that is left to me is the awful homesickness I felt; surprising myself with the intensity of it. I, who felt invincible surrounded by my loved ones was bereft and, I confess, out of my depth in the Halls of academe that I had so longed to be a part of.

The scene is Bath University, time, the summer of 2004 and I am attending the Summer School, an obligation for the points needed towards my degree. Only one other member of my group from home, John, is also attending, but he has quickly paired up with a younger more nubile woman with whom he eats, studies and plays.  The class has been divided into groups of four or five and our task, for the last day and the last session before leaving is to discuss various themes concerning the painting entitled  The Air Pump   by Joseph Wright of Derby       We got together in the bar after the class   and came up with the idea of trying to make it a bit funny by doing a University Challenge Skit...then they all drifted off and left me to work out the details.

Day 4  Wednesday: Well! it is 10.30 and I'm in bed. I tried to call you all but the men must be doing Kent League and the girls out? I'm finishing my Nachos and listening to my radio which I have amplified a bit by dropping the earpiece into an empty glass.  Had a good day today, finishing on a good note, literally. We had three sessions with David G. A full prof. I'm not sure that I remember much of what he said over the four and a half hours during which he covered History of Science, Religious Studies and History, but boy was he fascinating to listen to.
Had a baguette for lunch 'cos I could not face the food in hall, then the 3rd session and back here to rest up.
I think you will get a shock when you see me because I look awful, red puffy eyes and my feet and legs are swollen [perhaps I am destined to spend my life at sea level] Evening meal inedible. I won't bother to describe it but when the veg. alternative is better than the non-but not much-it tells you something.
Brilliant option evening of music, with our own tutor.

Lost one of our group, dear old Douglas-the note taker. He writes down everything that is said so we don't have to bother; just ask Douglas and he will repeat verbatim. It seems his wife was walking the dogs on some moor or other, fell and broke her ankle. She had to crawl for a mile to get help;at 68...tough old bird. Now we have to re-think our presentation.
Miss you, miss my bed, miss telly, miss dad nagging me,miss my garden [has it been secateur-ed to death?]
One more ya   XXX

Thursday: 60's day. 3 sessions on the culture and counter culture that began in the 60's. Martin Ashley has been a good tutor and today was very good too. Certainly made us think about what we're saying. If I've learned anything this week it is that one must formulate an argument before voicing it, make it a valid argument, and that it does not have to be right, only valid. 
Spent some time on the project [finally-all the others seem to have a life] I'm presenting the painting, it's form design genre etc. Sean the history, Richard philosophy and Pat the scientific. Any mistakes we will blame on Douglas' absence.  Musical show in the evening very good. Anne [the girl who can do no wrong..friendly, pretty, mother of four,]did four things; she sang in the choir, in a quartet and had a solo then was in a skit on 'The Importance of being Earnest'. She was very good, well, when your six year old reads 'The Lord of the Rings, your husband is a Queens Council, your diction is perfect, you sing and play the piano and cosy up to the tutors, oh, and read poetry aloud at option sessions, you are bound to be a leading light at AmDram.  {I cannot believe how bitchy I was}
John has a new girlfriend. I've never seen him so animated.
Home tomorrow. Yippeeee!

Day 6th. Friday:  So, the big day has arrived. An early breakfast with what passes for coffee [when I think what this summer school is costing..bah!] Then join the others in room 2-12. Bob comes in with a lectern, oh lord! and a slide projector. Can't get out of it now. First off is Lyn and her team...Chris tells us a bit about Ovid, how he pissed off Augustus and was exiled - rumour goes that he was shafting Gus's daughter. Then Lyn read her script-I was so nervous for her-no idea what she said. They sat down and we had 15minutes of discussion on Ovid. I tried to spin it out but Martin wasn't playing-we were next, we were up and we were for it.

I was the opener and I was feeling fine as I explained how we had planned a different format, something hopefully amusing but had been obliged to change our plans at the last moment. [not a flicker of sympathy from Martin]  but the moment that the curtains were drawn, projection light on  and the slide in to reveal that bloody picture I began to lose it. Two hours I had spent the night before writing my script. but I hadn't reckoned with the pointer. This was to be my tool, I could point out the salient facts. With it I would be a god, a tutor, in command. Was I heck! While using the pointer I couldn't be looking at my script and I sure did not know it by heart. So there I am, blathering on about 'Spatial plane' and thinking, what the ..... is that? I stumbled into the illusory plane, remembered the important triangle of arms, hand, head and eye and the meaning of the skull, remembered the names of only two of the ten characters and found that my writing appeared to have dissolved into little black splodges on all three pages.

I vacated the lectern and passed it over to Richard, who decided to stay where he was, abandoning the pointer-wise move considering the bad vibes. He did as badly as I. My performance had turned that vibrant man into jelly and he bottled. Pat saved the day. Cool, calm and collected she gathered all our disparate threads and wove them all neatly together, salvaging us from total humiliation. She sat down to mild, scattered applause. 
Martin spent 20 minutes on our subject and as he did my notes sprang back into neat sensible rows again and I was able to answer questions. 

Then it was the turn of Ann's group. Dear Polly Perfect, talented, never flustered, always cool, bandbox pristine under the roughest conditions. [Jealous? Moi?]

Wait till you hear this: She had gracefully accepted the music assignment that no one else wanted because it was too difficult. She had gathered her troops around her, [God knows when, what with choir practice, solo quartet and sketch practice] she produces an informative, brilliant explanation of this piece of atonal shit. She even discovered and proved a Jig in the piece that Martin, a music prof. had missed. [Do you hate her yet?] She's not finished; Graeme, with his osteoporosis and two walking sticks is  blessed with a deep Richard Burton/Anthony Hopkins voice, and he reads, nay, almost sings a poem entitled White Man Sleeps which is-bloody incidentally- the name of the piece of music. Where the hell did she find it? It was sooooooooooooo good. Martin said  many nice things after we had applauded and I was forced to admit that I was beginning to like the piece of music...she had made it accessible [did I tell you that the Paragon of virtue had copied out the theme and given us all a copy?]  After we had discussed the work in some detail I asked [shut up fool] if we could have the poem read again, and Graeme obliged, giving it even more wellie than ever.
'It is so very good' I trilled, 'Who wrote it, do tell?'
'Well, actually, said Graeme, looking very pleased with himself, 'Ann wrote it this morning, at breakfast.'
Did I walk into that?
Ann had her head coyly in her hands and whimpered 'Oh, please!'

Don't you just hate a goody goody.

The last couple of pages tell of leaving and then finally I sum up: I need people who love  me around me, I found out that much about myself. I love my family before anything, but I also love the challenge of learning, the stimulation of new thoughts.

I am still in awe of academia but I'll get over that [I never have] those who dwell in marble halls are just people-albeit with a head start on me. But I guess I'll give them a good run, even if I never catch up.

Thursday 24 February 2011


Because I have a head full of nothing. Because I need to be in touch and because Leave it to Davis asked me to post something, anything, I am reposting this from 08. 

Dec 3, 2008 5:24 PM

by Moannie

Tony was born on the IIth January I944. We had been sent away to stay with Grannie [Fairy]but after his birth we  did not return to the tiny flat in Kilburn. Harry became the manager of a Fish and Chip shop in Morden in Surrey, the first of what would be many moves. It worked like this: Harry did not pay bills until the last possible moment and if he could escape paying them by using his considerable charm [when it suited him] and various tall stories, usually centring on a sick wife, children, or aged parents-he would. Then, when he considered that he had saved enough he would find another shop with living accommodation. Mother would pack whatever could be carried and we would leave, usually at night. 

June’s first task at the new venue would be to seek out the local ‘hole-in-the-wall’ where she would replace beds, armchairs, table and chairs, mirrors, even pictures for the walls. Sometimes my bed was iron, sometimes just a mattress on the floor; it all depended on the local junkman’s stock. One room I had contained a single bed, a chair, some hooks for my clothes and an eight by eight foot Gilt framed mirror that the last tenant had left behind. It was against the wall with my bed pushed up sideways onto it. Oh, how I preened and posed, candle light lending my plain face interesting contours.

There were other places where he left us while he went off looking for another easy target; if for example the owner of our last shop had discovered that he was being ripped off and had turned us out onto the street. We would go to a new town and wait until sent for. One town I recall was Skegness where we stayed in an attic room with a sloping roof in a boarding house which we had to vacate from nine thirty am to five thirty pm. Tony was still a baby and it must have been hard for mum to cope. The landlady would frown and tut whenever she saw us, probably because Tony kept the house awake with his teething. But Mick and I would run free. Free from school and free from the louring cloud of Harry's disapproval we scoured the town for amusement. When we did stay long enough in one place to go to school we would always be the ‘new kids’, condemned never to know where anything was; always in front or behind the curriculum. Very few of the schools have stayed in my memory, because we were like gypsy children, we went because we had to by law but we were perfectly happy to run free.
We knew how to slope off, make ourselves scarce, and provided that we came back for meals and did our chores, it was the best solution all round, out of Harry’s eye line, out from under foot and out of doors. By the time Tony was old enough to keep up with me he was my shadow. I took him everywhere with me and Mick began to leave me to go with his own friends.

I am trying to remember if the war years were a fearful time. In I939 I was only five and for a long time our corner of England escaped unscathed. But eventually even in Somerset there were air raids. German bombers would be after a factory, a train terminal, or shipping and there would be dogfights with shrapnel raining down from damaged planes. The siren would wail its warning and we would be collected in the common room [I do not know where the boys sheltered] and during one particularly bad period of bombing, all the beds were brought downstairs to this room and that is where we ate and played and slept. But it was so much a part of our lives, like school or praying, that I think, in the way of children, it was an accepted part of the whole.

There were times later when we felt actual fear, seeing doodlebugs and later V2 rockets in London, holding our breath that they would pass beyond us before the engine cut out and it dived on us. The worst times for me were when we had to shelter in cupboards under stairs. It was dark and smelly and cramped; Mum, Mick, Me and baby Tony, huddled together in the tiny space, listening to the Ack Ack [onomatopoeic] gun mounted on a truck and manned by the Home Guard driving up and down the street shooting at enemy aircraft.

Mick and I hated Hitler. A lot of our play involved intricate plans to track him down and arrest him. We could not understand why all our soldiers, and the Yanks could not find him and put him in prison. If they caught him the fighting would stop, would'nt it?

The concept of death meant nothing to me, I was not afraid of dying as I had no understanding of mortality, life and death. It would be a very long time before I voiced the age old query, why am I here? No, they were the worst of times because of my fear of spiders. Mick would never miss an opportunity to tell stories of horrible fat killers with large hairy legs and fangs that would not disgrace a tiger. Mostly we all became deathly tired of being afraid. Mum wanted to evacuate us away from the bombing and now there was the added threat from Doodlbugs. These were winged rockets that were shot out over the Channel with enough fuel to take them over London. They were not specifically targetted and, once the fuel ran out and the engine stopped, they dived. 

Early one morning we all came back from the Underground to try and get some sleep. Some of the stations had bunk beds and there was even a holiday atmosphere as families came together with friends, shared food, sang and even danced if someone had an harmonica or accordian. But we slept on the platform as best we could in the crowded conditions, and left as the first trains began to run into the station. I remember that Mick and I had gone to our bunk beds and I slept briefy. I awoke to the familiar noise of a Doodlebug in the distance. If you close your mouth and grunt uh,uh,uh, uh that is the sound the bugs made. This time it was getting nearer. I sat up in my top bunk and turned to the window...Harry was there, and mum and she had tony asleep in her arms. They were looking out at the sight of a doodlebug one street over; it passed to the left, and the engine stopped. A few seconds later there was a loud explosion and they ducked under the window as the glass rattled, broke, and would have showered them had the glass not been stuck with crossed tape. 'Enough' said mum.

So did have a brief trial at evacuation, a three month stay in Diss, Norfolk, with a great friend of mums; a heavenly hiatus which took place during a very long, warm summer. Moira Burdett was an Hon. [daughter of a peer] and was the first eccentric I had ever met. She spoke the King’s English like a BBC announcer that made my Somerset vowels horrible to my own ears.Mick and I clashed with her own elder daughter Jennifer and mother sniffed at Moira’s morals [she drank and was living with a man almost as eccentric as herself who drifted away when it was obvious that we were there for the long haul] Three months was all that mum could stand away from the blacked out lights of London and we returned for another bout, spending the nights in the underground until the night that one hundred and seventy three people were killed by a direct hit on Bethnal Green station.

When eventually Harry thought that it was time to move away we went to Folkestone: in what turned out to be a case of from the frying pan to the fire, to a Fish and Chip shop that sat at one end of Harvey Street. Luckily it was the farthest end from the sea for that area was obliterated by a parcel of bombs that must have been intended for the harbour. Folkestone at that time was a very attractive resort, unlike today when it is spoiled by traffic zoning, one way streets and new builds. The long pebble beach below the Leas was lined with concrete blocks and barbed wire and citizens were discouraged from using it. But the smaller sandy cove beyond the harbour was open to the public and every warm day saw it littered with bodies as we lapped up the rays and pretended life was normal. The Leas were, and I believe still are, covered by Mediterranean pines that had branches which grew like flat arms, perfect for small children like Mick and I to lie and watch dog fights between the speedy British Spitfires and the German Messerschmitt. Sometimes, on a particularly clear day we could actually see the French coast and, if we were lucky V2 rockets leaving the French coast and arching over us on the way to London.

Wednesday 16 February 2011


As I have told you before, many times, the reason why I post so much of my past is that my present is without incident. Been there, done that, and now wear the tee shirts - fine as silk with use and washing - as shorty nighties.And to prove it to be true I shall recount this one day, today.

I woke at eight, a good night, turned my radio off at midnight and did not linger too long in that awful 'I'll never fall asleep' limbo. I stretch, testing limbs, ligaments and cartilages. Think about getting up, but JP. is at the door, Milou high in his arms looking down on me. I say 'Good morning', stroke the dog and the man and they leave.

I'm up when they return from their walk although I have taken an age to decide what to wear from my stock of black leggings, black tops and well worn boring sweaters. My dilemma is over the quantity of each I might need today. Yesterday was a three layer day but, we are told by the all-knowing weather girls, that today will be wet and windy with an easterly wind making it seem colder. [sorry...but if it is 6degrees  then surely it should feel 6 degrees] I make it four layers-it is always cold in the kitchen first thing, more so if JP has decided that it isn't cold and has not switched on the electric fire to heat the room. He is later than usual as he met Stavros [ our dentist and friend] and discussed football results for fifteen minutes.

I did tell you...

He has the papers, the kettle is on and places laid [what a star] so I feed Milou, make the tea or coffee and make my toast. We eat and read. I comment a lot, read out stuff, and he does a lot of uhmming and grunting in lieu of responses. I do the code word puzzle...then we swap papers, taking less time with them as they virtually give the same information.

This morning we washed the large windows in the living room-he banging on the outside to point at the places I had missed and I doing the same back to him.

One piece of mail: Damart sent me a key to a brand new Puegeot:  It is mine if I buy at least £20 worth of merchandise from their new catalogue and my name is pulled out of the box. Yeah,right!
Then I go upstairs to be greeted by LM's [youngest daughter] cat . And she too has a routine that she hates to vary. She leads me here to the study where I switch on Paco [computer] then leads me elegantly - there is no other word to describe the gait of any cat, especially one like Mollikins who has an inflated opinion of her own importance - into my bedroom where she jumps on the chair in front of my dressing table and waits for me to make my bed. I then brush her.

I spend a little while logging on, reading any comments and just looking around.
Downstairs again, plump cushions, vac. if needed and dust, always there is dust which doesn't show when the sun don't shine.

See what I mean?

After lunch I took Milou for a walk, short or long depending on weather and state of joints. Then I watched Doctors and finished my latest book Last Train from Liguria by  Cristine Dwyer Hickey, I cannot rate it too highly...beautiful writing and heartbreaking story.

About five o/clock I start to think about  preparing supper, though the menu has been fixed since breakfast-a daily 'must have' discussion broached by JP for whom meals are the most important part of the day-it will be seafood risotto-green salad and the ubiquitous cheeses.

TV comes next...and, since having Sky plus, and the ability to record so much I'm in heaven with The Good Wife, Grey's Anatomy, Bones, NCIS, et al.

By ten thirty we are abed. JP. with a book and me to listen to the radio, stations 2,4,7 or Classic FM.

During this one day the phone has rung three times; all of the calls were 'scatter sales'.
It has been too cold and wet to garden or to dry clothes.
Things will  change with the weather, when we can eat outdoors and I can fulfill my ideas for planting, take longer walks with Milou or even do some watercolours. But, till then, this is our lives, kiddos.

Now you know why I draw on the days when things happened, when we were young and adventurous [or stupidly careless].

Hope I haven't bored you too much.
How do you think I feel?

Wednesday 9 February 2011


It's good to share, we all know that don't we?  'Share your toys, nice' our mothers plead.  We share our space, scrunching up on benches, 'Sit here, there's plenty of room' we say as elbows dig into our ribs and mounds of flesh overlap and get caught beneath our thighs. Our Government shares our taxes with despots and good, altruistic millionaires share their wealth, sometimes without fanfare.

So sharing is, on the whole, good.

I learned the hard way all about sharing.

At St. Edith's, the orphanage where I spent five long years, my brother Mick and I were the only children with a parent. Mum seldom came to see us. She remembers it differently, says that she came once a month. Uh uh!
She came once with Jan, the Norwegian Merchant Seaman, once with a tall well padded man who brought me a red child's handbag, once when she took us to a Pantomime of Cinderella, once in the summer when we climbed on the rocks and found an old empty tin of Heinz Baked Beans and she screamed at us, because, apparently it was well known that the Germans left bombs lying around disguised as beans. And another time when I had Mumps. And, of course, there was the time she bought the awful Harry.

I cannot remember who she brought with her when we got the Dolly Mixtures. More than likely they were a gift from a 'prospective daddy'. These tiny sugary  delights, in individual kid's size jars would have been unobtainable in war - torn, rationed England; they would have been  carefully measured out from a large jar and weighed to a strict 2oz measure of  the weekly allowance. Tipped into a paper bag and the top tightly twisted, they could, at least in my brother's case, last a week. Mine would be gone in a mouthful or two of sweet heaven.

I arrived back at the Convent clutching my Dolly Mixtures and, after changing out of my 'best' coat and dress into everyday hand-me-down skirt and Jersey [as we then called our 'sweaters'] I sat down and opened the jar.
About to put the first sweet-scented rose-pink square into my drooling mouth I became aware of the cessation of all noise and looked up to see ten pairs of eyes staring at the jar in my lap, well, eleven pairs if you count Sister's.
Sister Edith was a stern woman, perhaps she was old, she would have seemed so to me, at six years old. I might have fared better had it been one of the novices but no, it was Sister Edith.

'Do you not think it is Christian to share your good fortune, Molly?' She rose from her chair and towered over me. 'Of course you do...come girls...arranged your chairs in a circle and Molly will divide her bounty as Jesus shared his.'

There was a scraping of chairs on the floorboards as the girls did her bidding. They sat down, their palms upwards on their laps. Pink palms, white palms, large small and fat palms, all held out for my glorious squares of sugar.
Slowly I began, dipping into my jar and dropping a sweet in each one. Some of the girls could not wait and I watched with watering mouth as the delights vanished, each  sweet almost too small to chew. Round the chairs I went, pausing in front of Sister Edith, staring at her clasped hands then raising my eyes to her face, her lips in a tight moue  that could have been interpreted as distaste or disapproval. I remained rooted to the spot until with a 'tut' and slight shake of her wimpled head she indicated that I should move on.

Round I went, and round again, filling single large palms and cupped smaller ones until the jar was empty. I sat down and replaced the lid, realization hitting me. I opened my mouth to speak, to protest, to plead, but Sister Edith spoke first.

'Well, Molly! Jesus truly loves you. You have made your friends happy with your selfless act. Say thank you children.'

I swallowed the wail that rose in my throat and fought the tears that threatened to spill over-saving them for the comfort of my pillow later. As I watched the girls tucking into their spoils I thought that something was not right. If I had done such a good thing, why wasn't I feeling good about it? Why did I want to fight them all to quench my mouth of it's desire for those sweet sugary sensations?
Was I a bad person?

The lesson is this: It is very good to share, but do not give all your Dolly Mixtures away-unless you are a Saint or have an unlimited supply, or you hate Dolly Mixtures anyway.

Wednesday 2 February 2011


First published: June12, 2009 6:16 PM

by Moannie
A bottle of salad cream is a metaphor for my attitude to life. It has to be Heinz original, none of this low-calorie stuff in a squeezy bottle. Not that I use it anymore; in this house it has to be a dressing of mustard, vinegar, and extra virgin olive oil on our salads, or home made mayonnaise on our hard boiled eggs.

When I was a child, and in the growing season, before expensive imports and intensive farming, Sunday tea consisted of a salad of lettuce, cucumber, spring onions, radishes, tomato and or boiled beetroot. Each plate would contain a pile of these ingredients and a slice of ham or corned beef, cheese or hard boiled eggs. There would be slices of bread and butter [after the war] and a tinned fruit salad [also after the war] with evaporated milk. Mum would carefully pour a blob of salad cream on each plate, about the size of an old penny, not nearly enough to coat the salad or to allow one to dip the corner of each forkful in. So what I would do was to eat the entire plate of food without touching the salad cream, leaving just one piece of tomato, then, with mouth watering in anticipation, spread the entire blob onto the tomato and eat it. Harry would glare at me, but there was nothing he could attack me for, I had eaten all my salad and if I wanted to eat it dry and save the cream for the final bite, even he kept quiet. My brothers jeered and mother looked scared, as she always did when she thought Harry was angry. One day I did some calculations, asking mum how long she thought the bottle would last... ‘About a month of Sundays’ she answered. Tony was still a baby so that left four of us and the bottle was three quarters full. ‘Could I have my share all in one go?’ I asked; Harry must have been elsewhere or I would not have dared. She looked scared again but had the grace to ask ‘Why?’
‘Well, the way we do it now there is not enough to even taste it properly.’
She thought about it then said ‘No.’ and that was that.

In the Orphanage we would be served thin porridge with a sprinkling of brown sugar. When it was a newly opened bag and the sugar dry the small spoonful would settle and quickly melt like snow on a wet road and it was never enough to sweeten the gruel that cook always over salted. But, once the bag was opened, it quickly hardened and had to be smashed with a rolling pin before being shunted into a bowl for the sister to dole out. If I was in luck I would have a lump of the brown sweet delight, sitting in the middle of my plate like a virgin island surround by a grey sea. Taking up my spoon I would eat the salty gruel as quickly as I could, fighting down the nausea that haunted my daily life, my eyes fixed on the island of delight, determined to eat the ocean before the land melted away. At last I would spoon the sugar and close my mouth and eyes as its delicious sweetness righted my stomach and prickled my eyes with tears of happiness.

I love to anticipate delights. I used to buy my clothes on the “layaway plan”. There was a coat I coveted in a shop in Ramsgate where I was nursing in the fifties. It was a ‘shortie’ and it was yellow and cost £5, a lot of money when you consider my monthly salary was £7. The shopkeeper took the coat out of the window and put my name on it. It took me five months to pay for it at half a crown a week. Had there been such a thing as a credit card I would have taken it away that day, worn it and discarded it well before the five months were up.

I will not buy cheap steak, except for a casserole. We don’t eat it very often but when we do it is a joint of the best sirloin, T-bone steak for a BBQ or fillet for frying. Why buy off cuts of fish unless it is for a pie, or farmed Salmon that is pale pink and wormy from eating its own excrement. Alaskan wild Salmon for us or it is fish fingers.

And I love the same way, unconditionally and wholly. I can’t be doing with half measures. I prefer to be in close physical contact with my children, but if that cannot be then I know that when we are together we will reiterate, shore up, and bask in touch and hugs and smiles and when they go I hope that they take that warmth with them that they felt as babes, in my arms and next to my heart