Monday, 9 July 2012

.....and poetry

I wrote my first poetry at about the age of 10: well, not so much poetry as emotional verse coloured by religious sentiment. Not great stuff, but I can still read it without feeling too much embarrassment! I guess it had been written in response to a book my father gave me that year: A Craftsman's Anthology by Arthur Romney Green. I'd never heard of this man, and still know little about him, or even why my father thought this a suitable book for a young child. But I dipped in and out of it for many years, getting to know poets both ancient and modern, and gaining the confidence to read other poetry as well as creating my own.

Though a seed had been sown I don't recall writing anything much for another five years, when I fell in love for the first time. It wasn't apparent to me then, but I was establishing a pattern of responding to overwhelming episodes in my emotional development. Poetry was a solace throughout the break-up of my first romance, the lonely years that followed, then marriage. There was a hiatus during that eventually failing marriage, marked only by a poem wrenched from my heart after the sudden death of my small daughter. I wrote no more until I met the man who was to be my second husband. Apart from an attempt at Shakespearean iambic pentameter for a college assignment in my forties, and an affectionate parodied reply to W. B. Yeats' Wandering Aengus, I've written no more...

In our village Reading Group we compiled our own anthology of favourite verse and poems, and we recently discussed the work of Carol Ann Duffy , particularly her collection, The World's Wife. It's great that, in becoming our latest Poet Laureate, she's achieved several firsts, but I'm still ambivalent about her poetry: she's not "easy", but she does provoke much reflection in the reader. Sometimes her work seems clumsy - Valentine, for instance; sometimes she's romantic, sometimes witty, then she socks you right in the face, as in Mrs. Tiresias; she's cruel and raging in Havisham, and simply lyrical in Anne Hathaway. So far I've not found in her words something I could press to my heart and completely identify with. But maybe that's not her aim - she's good, strong, brave and adventurous - and I don't think I'd be so brave as to reveal my inner self to the public gaze as she and other professional poets do.

I've collected all my efforts in a hand-written notebook that still has a dozen or so blank leaves should I be moved enough to compose again. In my teens I once cherished a desire to be published. But now I re-read my efforts I see they're too raw, too crude and too personal. That's the thing that amazes me about those who do get into print - at what point does a poet feel prepared to submit that crystallisation of deep emotional insight to the judgement of the world? No answer yet!

Friday, 27 April 2012


Recently I went back once more to my old school, Wymondham College, to attend one of their annual musical productions. As part of the school's 60th anniversary celebrations the senior school staged Schoenberg & Bublil's Les Miserables - fabulous choice and triumphant production! Mingling with other old-timers who'd never done anything more exciting than Savoy operettas set me thinking about what music has meant to me over the years.

As far as I'm aware neither of my parents played a musical instrument. But my mother often recalled her days singing at school, and the role of Yum-yum that she played in a production of Gilbert & Sullivan's The Mikado. My father encouraged me to learn the descant recorder in primary school. I suppose they were aspirational rather than performers. But there was always music somewhere providing a context to my upbringing. There was an old wind-up HMV gramophone with a collection of fragile 78s: Beniamino Gigli or Enrico Caruso sobbing extracts from Pagliacci; Rimsky Korsakov's Flight of the Bumblebee; Kathleen Ferrier's amazing contralto giving us Blow the wind southerly - just a few I remember. The wireless was a constant companion to family life, and we listened to Sing something simple, or Your 100 best tunes. My brother Christopher, as a toddler, cuddled an ornamental cat with a music box inside to help him drop off to sleep. And now I recall his harmonica, or "comp" as he christened it, that he played furiously but tunelessly.

I remember pompously arguing the case for classical music over rock 'n roll in a very early piece of school composition (what we called "essays" back in the 1950s). And, when anyone asked what I'd like to be when I grew up, I'd unselfconsciously reply, "An opera singer!", without giving much thought as to what such a career might entail or even if I had the talent! Nevertheless, by the time I was due to go to grammar school, I had been seduced by Elvis Presley and Tommy Steele, in a manner of speaking.

At Wymondham College, that self-same grammar school, I signed up for violin and viola lessons, became a (not very good) member of the school orchestra, and joined three different choirs - junior, senior and girls - over my 6 year stay. The opera singer in me began to wake up to the realisation that I seemed to perform better as part of a team. Since I was also now a "boarder" the influence of my peers expanded, and I learned to appreciate a much wider range of music. Eventually I became a tearful, emotional Beatles fan: it helped that they were good to look at, but their music was so tuneful, and they were not stereotypical "pop" singers as the world was soon to acknowledge.

My old school has produced some well-known characters in many fields, but one that I knew personally was Russell Stone. I was  blushingly flattered one day in the school coffee bar when he complimented me on my taste in jazz - was that my copy of Stan Getz's Girl from Ipanema on the turntable? - great stuff! Later I shared a musical stage with him in the school production of G & S's The Sorceror - though he was the curate, and myself a mere village maiden, i.e. in the chorus. He went on to become a "Black & White Minstrel" and one half of the 70s duo, R & J Stone; I went to work in the Trustee Savings Bank.

My eldest son, Roberto, seems to have inherited whatever rhythmic genes I carry. He became a drummer at school and in a few bands. His occasional DJaying developed into presenting a show on a local radio station - all amateur however. You can read about his musical passions on his blog, Failed Muso. As for me, although I continued to make choral music for a few years after leaving school, I eventually gave up. Nowadays mine is the enthusiastic but dominating voice you hear from the congregation at otherwise sombre funerals, or accompanying Queen on Bohemian Rhapsody, for example. My grandchildren, Sofia and Gian-luca, are making music at school, supported by their musical dad, and have taken up playing the recorder too. What a brilliant introduction to music-making and musical appreciation that little instrument is! Listen to Michala Petri to realise why it's not just a children's toy.

Returning to the beginning, I persuaded my youngest, Gavin, to drive me up to Norfolk to hear Wycol's version of Les Miserables, and what a night that was! I think he thought he would be bored, although he has been tutored by his girlfriend's taste for big stage musicals. We were both blown away by the energy and skill we not only witnessed but were immersed in. Tell your friends you read these names here first - John James Weatherstone as Valjean; Flo Taylor as Cosette; Marland Barsby as Gavroche; and the magical Ellie Isherwood as Eponine! All right, all right, so the audience of parents and Old Wymondhamians was a bit biased, but my musical soul was thrilled and proud and full of happy memories.

Friday, 24 February 2012

The two Dorothys

One day in 1959 a young mother, left alone in England with her children while her husband was helping test H-bombs in the South Pacific, picked up a book on a railway station bookstall somewhere in Norfolk.

My mother Dorothy was never a great reader, certainly not a fan of profound texts. She liked “true stories” of nurses or medical pioneers, having been an SRN in the Midlands before her marriage. So why she was initially drawn to this particular book I'll never know, since she died in 1988. Perhaps the cover notes were particularly persuasive:

"Whither is fled the visionary gleam?
Where is it now, the glory and the dream?

That lost poetry of childhood which Wordsworth laments is recaptured in Dorothea Rutherford's book. Through the eyes of the little girl Liesbeth, the author shows that it need not be true that “the things which I have seen I now can see no more”.

This is the autobiographical story of an enchanting child on the threshold of life. The time is the turn of the century, the place Reval, the chief city of Estonia, where the author was born and brought up. In this setting we relive the early years of a little girl, with her day-to-day joys and tragedies, big and small. Immune from sentimentality, The Threshold displays an astonishing intensity of memory and an exquisite delicacy of selection – glory in a snowflake or a sunbeam, terror in a shadow or a sound, eternity enfolded in the vivid, passing moment."

So she bought it, and began a love affair with it that has lasted ever since. What was this influential text? Only my favourite book.

Why did this book appeal to her? What follows is only an educated guess, piecing together my own childhood memories, and conversations I had with her in later years.

In about 1950 my father, being in the RAF, was sent to Hamburg in northern Germany, as part of that country's post-war recovery. For my mother, with two very small children, this was probably the most interesting, even exciting, time of her young life - a service wife with a large house, a gardener, and an exotic German nanny for Susan and Christopher. They would attend Kindergarten, freeing Dorothy's time to indulge herself. There were holidays at Scharbeutz on the Baltic coast, staying in the impressive Kurhaus. I have a postcard in front of me now, reminding me of the wonderfully deep, soft, Ostsee sand, the curious basket-work beach shelters - a cross between an arbour seat and a beach hut. Below is the card Dorothy sent to my grandmother in Tamworth, noting that this particular stretch of beach was "for allied personnel only - see the flag flying" atop the hotel.

My mother's postcard

Another view of the Kurhaus from the air
And I am also reminded of the sadness of the German 'episode', when my grandfather died and, for whatever reason, Dorothy couldn't travel home for his funeral - a hurt that became a deep resentment towards my father that she carried all her life.

But she also carried with her The Threshold and allowed me to read and reread it, till now it belongs to me. And I feel I'm the only one who really appreciates its magic (that is, of course, until I discovered Christine!) When I read the book now it seems the memories of the two Dorothys overlap, and as I was growing up they also merged with my own experiences of childhood and death.

Christine tried tracking copies around the world that were for sale, and found only forty or fifty. I think there is an excellent reason for this apparent scarcity - all those who already own this volume treasure it too much to ever bear parting with it whilst they are still living. In 2012 our online discussion brought another Christopher into the story - not my "little" brother, but Dorothea's grandson... The Threshold binds us all together, and the whole world should read it.

Ah, look! Spring is here!

They battled through roller-coaster temperatures and a thick blanket of snow. But now they're here!

Wednesday, 22 February 2012

Some more family history for the benefit of my children

Two of my step-daughters, both middle-aged, have not spoken to each other for several years. The cause of the rift was a misunderstanding over someone's Christmas present. There are 2 miles and an abyss of self-indulgent misery between them.

The broken family is not a new phenomenon, of course. My mother was not my father's first wife, and I was not his first child: in South Africa I have a seventy year old sister. This is not recent or surprising news since I was told about her when quite young. But for years she was just a never-ageing child in a photograph, and she had no significance in my life.

Following my father's death in 1995 she visited this country and met our brother. Why didn't I go to meet her as well? I can't remember now – she was still this kind of “invented” person to me, I suppose – someone who'd had no influence on me, and for whom I had no curiosity, let alone sisterly feelings. Nevertheless my brother saw to it that addresses were exchanged, and every Christmas since then we have sent each other seasonal greetings. This Christmas she added a phone number and an email address. Why? Perhaps it was because she had reached the landmark age of 70, and had wanted to reach out to me one more time. I emailed her an image of my family at a recent wedding. She responded with a fictitious “newspaper” concocted for her by her husband to mark that landmark birthday.

So now I know more about this sister – her schooldays, her marriage, her interests – but not the real woman. I will no doubt exchange more messages and information. But I'm not sure that I'll ever be moved to physically mend this particular break in our family – and there have been many other breaks. I feel separated from her existence by more than miles. And perhaps I am a little afraid that, if we finally met face to face and did not take to each other, we would both experience just another emotional wound from our absent and absentee father.

Tuesday, 21 February 2012

Fish out of water?

The pool in which I swim is small, but the water is not so cold that I'm unable to bask a little. I admit that, after signing off on By Metes & Boundes at the end of 2010, I was feeling a little washed up. But I'm happy to report that the years spent researching it are beginning to pay off, albeit not financially! Last December Edward Martin, archaeological officer for Suffolk County Council, came to the neighbouring village of Wetherden to talk about Haughley Castle, whose site is currently being cleared and historically re-assessed. I felt my face redden slightly when one of the slides in his illustrated talk turned out to be the plan of that site in 1554 that I'd constructed for By Metes & Boundes, properly cited and analysed for the benefit of the audience!

Haughley 1554

I've also begun to be invited to give talks to local history groups – three so far, and two booked – on my work about Tudor Haughley. Uploading the text of By Metes & Boundes onto an academic website has resulted in dozens of Google hits from around the world by Early Modern historians. Unfortunately, having come out of the historical closet, however parochial, means I get asked to involve myself in a variety of projects on which I'm unqualified to speak. People now try to flatter me into saying yes to their demands, but I must try and regain some of my former control. Thrashing about in all directions will only splash the water out of my comfy pool, and I could end up floundering in the shallows! This increased activity resulted in my life becoming a bit more fragmented than usual, hence the large hiatus in my blog posts.