Sunday, 30 January 2011

The Threshold: Dorothea Rutherford

My most precious book is not my oldest; it is not my most beautiful; nor is it my most expensive; it cannot be found amongst my youthful school prizes, nor in my handful of autographed history volumes. No, it is a slightly scruffy, slightly 'foxed', pale blue cloth-on-board book that my mother bought for herself in 1959.

It is called The Threshold, translated from the German Vor Tag, written by a mysterious author called Dorothea Rutherford, and published by Rupert Hart-Davis in 1954. It is a memoir of childhood in Estonia at the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries. The subject of the memoir is a small girl, Liesbeth, who gives us a view of her world that is so tender, innocent and full of wonder, yet is never mawkish. Through her eyes we see her coming to terms with the world of adults, with love, religion, family relationships and celebrations, even death. It is a society before two World Wars and Communist control.

I feel as if I am the only person who ever read this book, since no-one I speak to ever seems to have heard of it. Occasionally it appears for sale on some used-book website valued at around £15, so not exactly sought after. Googling permutations of author, title and publisher has unearthed a mention in a list of periodical contributions at Wilkes University, Philadelphia, and as a topic of discussion at Oceanside Library, Nassau County, New York, , in September 2007 when it was compared to Wunderkind by Carson McCullers, amongst others. Oh, how I would love to discuss this book with another smitten reader! Are you out there somewhere?

Thursday, 27 January 2011

A dictionary should be a friend

I have described myself as an 'occasional pedant' because sometimes I get annoyed with the way people mis-spell, or use the wrong word. I am also quite fond of good punctuation, which is really not so very hard to learn. Of course, practice makes perfect, and those who largely communicate online, or by text and phone, may see no good reasons to stick to grammatical rules. However, for someone who loves the look of words on paper, who thinks form and comprehension are not outdated, such a rationale is anathema. And even if you write but rarely, there's no harm in owning at least one good dictionary.

For me that one good one has to be the Concise Oxford English Dictionary with its centre section that 'explores the richness of the English language past and present'. And a writer should never be without a Thesaurus to add variety to their outpourings. Remember, too, how language changes, adapts, adds to itself over the years. This means that an out-of-date dictionary is almost as bad as no dictionary at all. In trying to keep abreast I have consequently accumulated several different kinds of wordbooks.

At school everyone seemed to have a tiny Collins Gem at hand for its portability. Then when I was 21, strange girl that I was, I treated myself to Collins National Dictionary. In later years along came a couple of Oxfords, concise and compact, an encyclopaedic Longman's with charts and diagrams, as well as crossword and anagram dictionaries. I found Lemprières Classical, as well as a collection of German, French, Italian and Latin dictionaries, arriving on my shelves as studies and holidays demanded. Also lurking there is a Descriptionary , which describes itself as 'the book for when you know what it is, but not what it's called'. When I won a cash prize during my first year at University it was invested in the weighty Bloomsbury Encarta dictionary. Later, as a history teacher, I was obliged to 'do time' organising Study Skills sessions. Naturally I always encouraged my students to 'look it up' rather than just ask a friend, since any dictionary worth its salt gives etymology or derivation, helping to explain that word's origins. During this time I found Oxford English language guides and the Guardian Stylebook to be useful, but more fun were Accomodating Brocolli in the Cemetary, or why can't anybody spell? (check those three capitalised nouns for yourselves), and Eats, Shoots and Leaves ((remove that comma for a completely different meaning...). Until I began this wordsmith's inventory I hadn't realised just how many lexicons I had! But, just as a mechanic would not hesitate to select the correct tool, so I too need the reassurance of the precise word when I write. And yes, I am a pedant...

Without a doubt the swankiest dictionary I own is the very expensive online version of the OED that was a joint family gift for my 60th birthday. It is an invaluable resource when I am working on 16th century manuscripts. More than that, though, is the way it connects me to generations of users of the English language from its earliest days, reminding me that spelling, sense and meaning must inevitably evolve to fit the lives that language expresses.

Monday, 24 January 2011

Name dropping

Being an alumna of Queen Mary allows me to keep in touch with events at the Mile End Campus. One such was to have been a guided tour of Bow, followed by lunch and a talk by women's historian and author, Jane Robinson. The day before my friend and I were to set off to London I was contacted to learn that the whole thing was off due to a burst water main at the Olympic site – Stratford is just up the road. This meant no running water for catering, and no loos, so no lunch. My friend and I had read Jane's book, Bluestockings, and knew she was researching another about the Women's Institute, of which I had been briefly a member: Sally still is. How could we get to meet Jane before she'd finished researching her new book? How else? - we contacted her via her website and, lo and behold, she accepted our invitation to come to Suffolk. We dug up as much as we could about our local WI history, and she charmed us for a couple of hours over coffee and chocolates until she had to depart for Cambridge to give a talk at Newnham College. You see, it never hurts to ask!

Sunday, 23 January 2011

The King's Speech

I have just been to see the much talked-about film with Colin Firth, and have to say I was most pleasantly surprised to discover how good it is. I am not a royalist, and find certain members of our British 'first' family, past and present, quite despicable. With this in mind I felt I might be wasting time on what could turn out to be just another sycophantic offering. Yet, apart from anything else, it was well written and effectively visualised. I later found out that some of the on-screen witticisms, that had some of the audience laughing out loud, had actually been uttered by the real protagonists. The story, seemingly spare, was the genuinely moving account of one man's terrifying fate – to become a public figure yet have no alluring public persona. Finding out about the adult Bertie/George, for me at least, meshed with Stephen Poliakoff's film about his brother Johnny, The Lost Prince. On a more prosaic level, Colin Firth must have had permanent jaw ache whilst filming, so rigid and clenched were his features. Give him that Oscar for the humanity he brought out of what could have remained as private a family tragedy as the loss of his epileptic brother! On the topic of actors, I was also fascinated to play 'spot the celebs' in their assorted cameo roles – Claire Bloom completely escaped me until the credits went up. Fancy having a seemingly affectionless mother like her, or Michael Gambon's damaged, bullying father. At the end of the screening the audience broke into applause – quite unusual!

Saturday, 22 January 2011

While you were wandering - a re-flexion

Long since, I was a glimmering girl -
No cares had I of heart or head.
Yearning to touch the moth-like stars,
You'd never find me in my bed.
By night I'd roam the hazel wood,
Peering through twigs and berries bright,
Where Aengus cooled his fiery thoughts -
I watched him fishing through the night.

I played a girlish trick on him -
And, while he tended to the flame,
I took the trout and threw it out.
He turned – I jumped, and called his name.
His ageing eyes were brimmed with awe,
And I, ashamed, once more did speak
His name, then darted to the door -
Across the sky lay morn's pale streak.

Now I am old and yearn no more,
For life has dealt me cruel blows.
My face and body bear the marks
Of cares and toil, of loss and woes.
Who'll take my hands now youth is gone?
My thoughts with anxious fears abound -
Time's almost done. My gold and silver
Apples lie like windfalls on the ground.

(Thanks and apologies to W.B. Yeats)

Friday, 21 January 2011

The Old Broads at large

In 2006 when I had finished my regular trips to London for my Masters' studies I have to say I felt somewhat deflated. I had enjoyed the early morning dash to the railway station three times a week, and had no fear of the Underground system, despite the July 2005 terrorist bombings. Towards the end of the 2 year course I had also spent 3 months lodging mid-week with my daughter in South London. Mornings then began by me squeezing into a packed commuter 'shuttle' to Victoria Station, then cramming onto an impossibly overflowing platform, and finally shooting across the city to the Mile End Road. My time as a graduate student brought with it access to the British Library amongst many others – Guildhall, St. Paul's, the Royal Society, Senate House etc. In the autumn of 2006 I was wondering if I could face being cut off from such intellectual stimulation.

About a year later I joined the village reading group and began renewing acquaintance with old friends. One of these was a former Primary school headmistress I had known slightly for several years, our youngest children being contemporaries. She is always dashing around, volunteering, taking holidays. Like me she enjoys art and literature and having a good argument about anything. And so began the unholy alliance of the Old Broads, so-called because, as we strode out once from Liverpool Street Station, we passed the sign for Old Broad Street, and could not resist the photo  opportunity. The poor man we collared to take our picture must have thought us truly nuts, standing either side of the street name!

Caren Garfen's quilt at the V & A

The Ceremony of the Pyx

Since that day we have visited Goldsmith's Hall for the ceremony of the Pyx, the V & A quilts exhibition, the National Gallery where I tripped up the stone steps and whacked my knee in front of every tourist in London, the Royal Academy to see Treasures from Budapest, sung carols in the Octagon at Queen Mary, snooped around Dickens' House, and come face to face with riot police diverting the public from the recent student protests in Whitehall. We have dined in Paternoster Square, alfresco at Carluccio's in St. Christopher's Place, at Christopher's American Grill in Covent Garden, and at the fabulously mysterious Mint Leaf in the Haymarket. We may be in Trafalgar Square the evening before World Book Night, and we also hope to travel free on our pensioners' Bus Passes to Oxford. Will the Old Broads do it? Watch this space.

Tuesday, 18 January 2011

I may be turning into my father!

As I grow older I feel the need for company less and less. Is this a universal feeling, or am I becoming more like my dear old dad? He was very bad at personal relationships, unless he was the one in charge. So, after 3 wives, he ended up in a little bungalow at the end of a cul-de-sac, having lost contact with 3 of his 4 children. We did eventually come together during the last years of his long life, but the feeling was often that we had intruded on something important he was doing. I know he wrote a lot, and sometimes held controversial opinions on life and society. I believe his recorded wisdom is in storage at my brother's house, unread. Some days I have to spur myself into venturing out, which makes me sound like a recluse. Well, I am not as I have my family with me, or not far away. But I do feel that I could slip into sitting at my lap-top, or playing favourite music, or reading some of my many books for hours on end, not realising that a day had passed in the 'outside world'. I am not a 'party animal', nor ever was. Perhaps the remedy is to have noisy, adventurous friends to shake me up when necessary – which is what I do have, thank goodness!

Monday, 17 January 2011

Name dropping

I have always appreciated music and loved to sing – years ago I thought I might become an opera singer, though I had no idea how this could be achieved. Like many a child I learned the descant recorder – do they do that any more? - and scraped away at violin and viola in my school orchestra. My singing skills never advanced beyond the various school choirs (I did also join a couple of choirs after I left school), but I loved the thrill of making music with others. I was once in a school production of Gilbert & Sullivan's The Sorceror where the role of Dr Daly, Vicar of Ploverleigh, was filled by a talented pupil called Russell Stone. For him music was to be his career because he later joined the Black & White Minstrels, then became half of the 70s duo, R & J Stone – remember them? I hear he is now the step-father of Rachel Stevens (ex-S Club 7 and Strictly Come Dancing).

Red in tooth and claw...

My husband and I have just been watching in fascination as a sparrowhawk devoured a plump-chested collared dove right here in our garden this morning. The irony is that we have provided a larder for this raptor just by feeding all the little birds that fly here from nearby woods and fields throughout our English winter. Much as we love the pretty ones, the fragile ones, it's always the starlings - brash and coarse - that get first dibs on anything. And now the big boys are moving in! Can't help drawing parallels with human survival - you've got to fight for every mouthful or you're nothing.


Sunday, 16 January 2011

A Renaissance genius

As I do once in a while I have been gorging my senses on the Tate Britain 'Holbein in England' exhibition catalogue. My son gave me this a few years ago because I wanted to be able to visualise some of the kinds of people I'd encountered in my Early Modern history studies. Every time I turn its pages the images draw me deeper into trying to analyse the motivations and fears of Henry VIII's court.

In many ways the Tudors come across as a bunch of well-heeled crooks, the Corleone's of their day. Holbein actually looked into the eyes of their 'godfather', the magnificently sinister Henry who took on God, and actually thought he'd won when he eventually produced that elusive male heir (Edward died aged 15, probably from an illness worsened by his father's syphillis...). Holbein depicts Edward's mother, Jane Seymour, as a tight-lipped, prissy woman – what did she and Henry ever see in one another?

Holbein seems to have got beneath the skin of so many of his subjects, moving around at the heart of the 'machine', observing, flattering, painting them as they wanted to be seen, yet always through his skill revealing their own inner workings. Centuries later I turn the pages and see real, solid, mortal people with skin you want to touch, satins and velvets that rustle and fold, with wonderful eyes reflecting the life around them – the cruelty and inequality of Renaissance England.

Here are some of Holbein's gifts to our modern world – the plump and flirtatious-looking Lady Guildford; the dour businesslike faces of the Godsalves, father and son, with their amazing 'Pete Postlethwaite' features; Thomas More, sainted by some, just looks icily cunning to me; and here is the most beautiful Simon George in his blackwork embroidered shirt; truly touching are the darling baby sons of the Duke of Suffolk, Charles and Henry, who would, in their teens, die within an hour of one another from the 'sweating sickness' – influenza?

It is such a shame that, when this German born, adoptive 'denizen' of England himself died of plague in 1543 aged only 45, he could not know how much his vision would affect at least one lady in Suffolk four and a half centuries later.

Thursday, 13 January 2011

My first job

Apart from helping my mother fruit-picking as a child, the first paid work I did was as a waitress at the Cavendish Hotel, Gt Yarmouth during the summer I left school. The job involved living in digs for the season, and I remember the day my mum dropped me off in her little powder-blue Mini. I was quickly taken under the wings of a group of lovely Irish waitresses who had spent many summers in Yarmouth, followed by winters at the Bird's Eye packing plant in Lowestoft. They took me out for coffee, and I cried. They thought I was homesick. But I had been at boarding school for 6 years and had never cried over that, since it had been a relief to get away from my quarrelling parents. I just left those kind women under their misapprehension because it was easier than trying to explain what I barely understood myself. I guess it was the realisation that childhood was over, and I had to somehow make my own way in the world.

The work itself was quite physically demanding, working in the basement dining room and on your feet all day. I had some of my corners knocked off by jokey Northern holidaymakers and hard-bitten kitchen staff alike. But I made friends with a sweet girl whose father sold doughnuts on the seafront; I got to see 60s 'names' in the seaside shows – The Fortunes, The Hollies, Dave Berry; Mods on Lambrettas invaded the town one weekend; I dyed my hair red for a laugh; and I spent the summer under the 'assumed name' of Liz, since another waitress already bore the same name as me. Nevertheless I was glad when I managed to gain a position as a clerk at the East Anglian Trustee Savings Bank by that October, and was securely employed for the next 5 years.

Name dropping

When I decided to enrol for a Masters degree in 2004 I chose a course at the Centre for Editing Lives and Letters (CELL at Queen Mary, University of London in the Mile End Road. The course leader was Professor Lisa Jardine, charismatic daughter of the equally fascinating Jacob Bronowski. Queen Mary was a great place for running into well-known academics: while there I attended lectures by David Starkey and Keith Wrightson, as well as being taught by Evelyn Welch and Stella Tillyard. A doctoral student who sometimes 'sat in' was children's author Eleanor Updale. During my time at Queen Mary a long-lost manuscript book by Robert Hooke was saved for the nation through the joint efforts of Lisa Jardine and the Royal Society. And of course there was a chance to encounter the notorious Bob Norwich. Add the academic adrenaline to the buzz of travelling to and from the capital over a 2 year period, and I have been left with some fabulous memories.

Tuesday, 11 January 2011

Why blog at all?

I don't imagine that my Commonplace Book will ever come close to achieving the status/notoriety of such blogs as The New Adventures of Mr Stephen Fry. My initial target audience is considerably smaller – my family. When my mother died over 20 years ago I was to discover several aspects of her younger days about which she'd never spoken. Growing up I must also have heard her tell stories about things she did as a girl that never really took root in my memory. And now they're all gone. What conversations we could have had – might I have understood her better? The point of this collection of opinions and reminiscences is to remind my children and grandchildren that I wasn't always old (actually, I don't feel old, and I'm guilty and ashamed that I once referred to my mum as 'old' when she was only just 60...). I have sometimes been 'naughty', and I had to learn from my mistakes. Kids, it does no harm to be able to see the world through your mother's eyes once in a while.

Of course, this blog is for me too. In the autumn, after I finished writing my monograph on a 16th century manorial survey, I was at a loss. It had taken up so much time and effort, and I was feeling quite bereft. Blogging is restoring my confidence in my creativity. It seems I was just born to write: in my teens I wrote poetry and kept diaries. The diaries, along with old love letters, were burned long ago – something I now regret. The poetry remains, but it is mostly adolescent angst. My Commonplace Book is an opportunity to write about my world with the benefit of some accumulated wisdom.

Monday, 10 January 2011

World Book Night 2011

On behalf of our reading group I have applied to take part in World Book Night on March 5th 2011. If we're successful we will have the enormous pleasure of giving away 48 FREE copies of a selected text. (  ) As recipients we have identified senior High School students and residents of ours and surrounding villages whom we want to encourage to join our group, or even form ones of their own. And the book we've chosen? Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell – no, not that David Mitchell... It's a curious book at first sight – six stories hiding one inside the next: six styles, six plots that advance in time from the 19th century to an uncertain and far-distant future, and back again. Each story is anchored to its predecessor by certain characters, or a piece of music, a ship, or an android serving in a fast-food outlet! Mitchell's purpose seems to be to explore what drives humankind on to 'progress', even in the face of disasters and disadvantage, regardless of the consequences. He philosophises about the circularity of human history and experience. I think he concludes that we can learn from the past, but it will take a lot longer to get it right than we thought, and we might have to begin all over again. As Mark Twain once wrote: History never repeats itself, but it does rhyme.

Name dropping - an occasional series

In the late 1970s I was part of a craft co-operative made up of women similar to myself – small children to raise, husbands well paid enough that we weren't obliged to work, very middle class. We peddled our various skills around Norfolk at craft fairs etc., also taking private commissions. My own field was crochet, taught me by my step-father and nurtured by my Italian mother-in-law. One of our crafty ladies was married to a producer at Anglia TV, and she happened to know that Fiona Richmond was in town. Fiona who? Google her - she's in Wikipedia. Anyhow, I ended up crocheting a stage 'outfit' for the vicar's daughter-turned-glamour model. As I remember the 'dress' was sleeveless, plunging, and largely made up of fringing...

Sunday, 9 January 2011

Reading group

I have just finished reading the first of Stieg Larsson's 'Millennium Trilogy', The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo' with our village reading group. We've been going for about 3 years, meeting once a month in the local pub for drinks and heated debate. The landlord has also listed us as one of the pubs attrractions! I joined because I was in desperate need of a literature up-date. Since 1998 my reading had been largely set texts and history books, and I'd begun to lose touch with current authors

I have been constantly surprised by the kind of the books some of my friends choose - Broken April (Ismail Kadare) or The Girls (Lori Lansens) for instance. Someone even chose Fowles' French Lieutenant's Woman because she had been brought up in Lyme Regis. I'm afraid she got a bit of a surprise herself when she actually read it! That one did divide us, since only 3 of us enjoyed it.

I was a little ashamed to find out just how many books other members got through. Several took books on holiday, which is something I never do - I'd much prefer to be out and about seeing the sights or relaxing with a glass or two. But, looking round my office-cum-spare room, I note that I have amassed an eclectic selection of books over the years. So I suppose that I too once read purely for greedy pleasure - on the bus or train to or from work in Norwich, or during lonely evenings when my first husband was working in his restaurant.

I returned to studying in 1996 when my reading became focused on academic outcomes. Since joining the reading group I hardly know what to expect each month. (Actually, next month it's Susan Hill) But I have got my wish and am now catching up with modern writers. As for Larsson's Dragon Tattoo, well it was a dark tale with flawed protagonists, and a bloody good mystery with a cascade of denouements as the various strands were resolved. The Swedish setting was one of political and economic corruption, much like Mankel's Wallander, to which my husband and I have become addicted. Just the stuff for retired ladies!

Friday, 7 January 2011

Surviving Christmas

Well, there you are - it's been and gone once more and I breathe a huge sigh of relief. When did I put away childish things and become a grumpy old woman? Can't say... Some of the stress was alleviated by finally remembering to shop early and send my Christmas cards before I'd begun to receive them. And this year the festive meal was eaten at the home of my eldest son and his young family. But my decorations grew ever more minimalist, amounting to a display of greetings cards and a solitary quilted and sparkly star from the V & A shop! No tree, no fairy lights! I did used to enjoy all the frippery, really I did. I remember in my late teens persuading my mother to let my artistic imagination run amok, and now I understand her own reluctance. So there it is, it's genetic and there's nothing to be done. And don't get me started on New Year's Eve!!
In about 1573 Thomas Tusser wrote: At Christmas play and make good cheere, for Christmas comes but once a yeere. Good job too. He also wrote: At Christmas the hardnes of Winter doth rage, a griper of all things and specially age: then lightly poore people, the yoong with the old, be sorest oppressed with hunger and cold. What season the better, of all the whole yeere, thy needie poore neighbour to comfort and cheere? Can't argue with that, and I made a point of giving to as many charities as possible. So roll on spring!
...the musings of a local historian, unpublished author and occasional pedant