Monday, 16 January 2017

My mother's gift to me.

My mother introduced me to literature with stories. Bedtime stories and anytime stories. My early favourites included the Beatrix Potter books and Alison Uttley’s Little Grey Rabbit series. I loved My Naughty Little Sister, by Dorothy Edwards. That's what my older sisters called me, but I knew that the child in the book was naughtier than anything I could come up with, because she did lots of really silly things which I viewed with a four-year-old's contempt. However I was rather impressed when she went on a train journey by herself with only the guard to keep an eye on her. I also liked the Milly Molly Mandy series, by Joyce Lankester Brisley, especially as I had my own Little Friend Susan. I did wish Milly Molly Mandy would choose something other than stripes for her dresses though. She nearly did once. 

Like many children I also listened to 'Listen With Mother' with my mother! Co-incidentally it was first broadcast on this very day in 1950.

Learning to read was effortless and seemingly took no time at all so I read books for myself by age five or six but still liked my mother reading to me. One book that I enjoyed was Treasures of the Snow by Patricia St. John. Set in Switzerland it featured children who skied to school in winter which sounded wonderful, although I imagined the walk back up the mountains must have been a bit of a hike. Our house had plenty of books, including some of my mother’s childhood books and those belonging to my three older sisters. I read them all.

Stories didn’t end with books. I also loved those that my mother made up or the real stories about her childhood in Australia of which I never tired. When I helped my mother with household chores such as washing up, we made up stories with one of us starting and the other taking over. The best story we created went on for weeks about a crazy family who lived in the country and led a rather bohemian life, of which their father’s relations heartily disapproved. The step-mother, who bucked the trend by being nice to her step-children, was called Lorraine but she changed it to Raine as the children were Wood, Heath, Moore, and Brooke and she thought it fitted in better. Father was a little more conventional - I can’t remember if he had a name or not – so we got him out of the way much of the time by sending him abroad to work. 

As I grew older I devoured the children’s classics including two favourites, Little Women and Anne of Green Gables and we would discuss what happened after the stories ended or have conversations about the characters as if they were our neighbours and friends. We especially liked Anne and the inhabitants of Avonlea. These discussions continued as I met the characters in adult classics including Jane Eyre and Pride and Prejudice.

We often compared our real neighbours to characters. Barbara Pym’s novels teemed with people from our village, which had its share of helpful ladies. We also loved the Mitford autobiographies and novels and happily chatted about Farve aka Uncle Matthew and his frightful rages as well as the sisters’ exploits. How we envied the Hons cupboard as our house had no such cosy delight.

In recent years our book discussions remained one of our favourite subjects in our regular phone-call chats, along with family news. My mother continued to read both fiction and non-fiction – she liked memoirs of interesting people – until the last few weeks of her life. She would often dip into favourite familiars if she felt too tired to tackle something new. It wasn’t so long ago that we visited Tara to have tea with Scarlett and Mammy to see if Rhett had returned. We knew exactly how that story ended – don’t be misled by published sequels.

My mother was also very supportive of my writing, and was pleased about my few modest successes. A couple of years ago she passed me several exercise books of her writings over the years about life on the farm where we lived when my siblings and I were children.  

Of all my memories of her, the literary memories are among my most precious. I'm going to miss our chats about our book friends.


Kathleen Hazel Bamfield, née Stephens. May 1921-January 2017.



Saturday, 14 January 2017

Lit Ward 10 Under Threat.

The Reader by Mary Cassatt, 1877
Dr Read’s blood pressure was far too high. Nurse Gorgeous took off the monitor and hustled him into the miniscule staff room of Lit Ward 10, made him sit down in the only comfortable chair and fetched him several books. ‘You’re not going back on that ward until your blood pressure is down,’ she instructed him. For a moment she thought he was going to argue but he meekly turned to the first page of Decline and Fall, a choice he felt was apt.

After an hour’s reading Nurse Gorgeous checked his blood pressure and was reassured that he was improving but she wasn’t letting him back on the ward. However it was time for an important meeting. She bleeped Dr De Licious who was helping out in the overcrowded admissions ward.

‘Our ward is under threat,’ Dr Read told his staff. ‘The Chief Exec will close us down unless we can come up with a massive savings plan. The surgical ward has had to take three of our beds, and with the pressure they’re under I couldn’t refuse. They’ve had to take Nurse Page too as she’s primarily a surgical nurse. The only reason the Chief Exec hasn’t cut off our funding altogether is our outcomes, which have remained excellent with the exception of that unspeakable man…’ he stopped.

His colleagues knew who he was talking about. The Minister for Health was Lit 10’s only failure. Far from being turned in to a nicer person during his stay on the ward a year ago, he’d become far worse since his discharge. All three felt he deserved to end up in The Hague for crimes against humanity. ‘Article 7, section k,’ muttered Dr de Licious.

They formulated a workable plan. They reluctantly decided that Lit Ward 10 must become a day ward with just two beds on a general ward for those who had other medical needs besides Lit Therapy. They had already established a successful dayroom programme for staff requiring Lit Therapy. Many staff taken ill during shifts had found Lit Therapy prevented further days of sick leave. 

Dr Read had also instigated an out-reach programme to most other wards with great success. The only disadvantage being a number of books they supplied went home with these patients on discharge and were never seen again. However it was a small price to pay and had resulted in the hospital having a much smaller drugs bill. This was the reason the Chief Exec had allowed Lit Ward 10 to carry on at all. He didn’t hold with such nonsense as reading. Far better to give people lots of medication with long complicated names but even he had to acknowledge reading was cheaper and savings were the order of the day.

Nurse Gorgeous found a manager’s office on the second floor that was used for only one hour a week. She requisitioned it for the new Lit Ward 10. The Chief Exec had to admit this was better use of a bright airy office which had several comfortable chairs, a very nice set of fitted shelves containing one book, its own kitchenette and a large walk-in cupboard which would do as a staff room, so long as no more than two people were it in at the same time.     
    
The office was currently used by one of the consultants for her weekly team meeting simply because it was always empty but she agreed to officially relocate to the hot-desk suite (a draughty porta-cabin) but secretly held the meetings in her secretary’s house over the road from the hospital. Nobody knew whose office it was until a cleaner recalled it had belonged to the Chief Exec’s Bright Ideas Manager, who had precisely one idea, then gone on holiday and never returned. No one had missed him in over six months. The single book on the shelf was a copy of How to Get Ideas. Its efficacy seemed in doubt.

The new Lit Ward 10 was ready with a minimum of fuss. It had been nicely decorated six months ago owing to the BIM’s one idea and needed only a few more chairs, a couple of occasional tables and a coffee machine. Dr De Licious and Nurse Gorgeous headed for Ikea after work with a shopping list and some money from the League of Friends.

One of the porters volunteered to relocate the books and equipment from the old ward in his own time. He had been admitted to Lit Ward 10 after collapsing with exhaustion near the end of an 18 hour shift. He had been put to bed, allowed to sleep for hours on end and awoke to a cup of hot chocolate, breakfast and a copy of The Unexpected Inheritance of Inspector Chopra which had revived his flagging spirits. Life had been so much better since, even with the long shifts he still had to endure. Besides, Nurse Gorgeous was a smasher. Lovely girl – that Dr de Licious should get on and propose, he thought as he trundled the books to their new home. A copy of Animal Farm fell from the pile. He stopped to replace it.

The following day the patients took their seats in the comfy chairs and opened their books. An atmosphere of peace and content settled over the new room. Letta, the ward’s housekeeper, mixed up her special brew of Jamaican hot chocolate and took it round to the patients and staff. It wasn’t the same as the old ward, which now housed the increasing number of surgical patients from a nearby hospital which had been downsized, but the staff knew they would continue to do a great job in restoring people’s equilibrium and help them cope with the constant messes made by the government and its unspeakable ministers.

A patient brought in a donations box and everybody slipped a few coins or notes in. By the end of the first week there was enough for a number of new books, supplies of hot chocolate and a fresh bottle of gin. The patients knew that they were benefitting from the best NHS medicine in the world and wanted this to remain for perpetuity. Lit Ward 10 would survive – at least for the time being. 

What books would you recommend Nurse Gorgeous buys with the donations?


Thursday, 29 December 2016

Top Ten reads of 2016

Of the 62.5 books I read this year, here are my top 10 reads of 2016 - plus one - in the order in which I read them. They are not all recent; I base my choice on the impact they had on me, those that stay with me. I choose books to make me think, books to make me smile, books to make me cry. This selection has some of each. I had to add the last selection because although I haven't finished it yet I couldn't wait until the end of next year to include it. It might make my best of 2017 as well!

A Song for Issy Bradley - Carys Bray.

My introduction to Carys's writing was a reading one of her short stories on a blog or competition website. It was one of those stories where I thought: ' I wish I'd written that.' I read more of her short stories and knew I had to buy this, her first novel.  A family is struck by tragedy - how does each member cope?

The Rosie Project - Graeme Simsion

A lighthearted read but it might help people to see other people more clearly. I loved it.

Hotel Arcadia - Sunny Singh.

Sunny spoke at this year's Finchley Lit Fest - where I interviewed her discussing this, her latest novel about a terrorist attack on a hotel and the reactions of two people involved. This book is in the 'thought provoking' category and is one that deserves a second read.

Anatomy of a Soldier - Harry Parker.

Harry also came to Finchley Lit Fest. He talked about the book and we actually had to persuade him to read bits. It was the opening page that got me. Different, stark and tender it was a gripping and emotional read.  How does a soldier on a tour of duty cope when his life is threatened and turned upside down?

The Unexpected Inheritance of Inspector Chopra - Vaseem Khan.

Another FLF speaker - Vaseem's book is definitely in the make me smile category. I loved it and am looking forward to the next in the series.  Retirement looms for the inspector but he receives a strange gift. Will he accept and is he ready to hang up his badge?

A Cupboard Full of Coats - Yvvette Edwards

Yet another author from FLF, this is Yvvette's first novel. Word has it that her second is every bit as good!  How does a woman come to terms with bereavement and family secrets?

Patchwork Planet  - Anne Tyler

I've read a number of Anne Tyler's books, some I've loved, some not so much. This is one of my favourites.

A Month in the Country - J.L.Carr

This slim classic, bought from a charity shop, had been sitting unread on my bookshelves for years. It was time I remedied that!

No Other Darkness - Sarah Hilary.

Murder and crime stories aren't my usual reading matter but Sarah's books go deeper than many. Dark and disturbing, this one kept me turning the pages. Four books in the Marnie Rome series have now been published and a fifth is underway.

The Year of the Runaways - Sunjeev Sahota

Topical and insightful, this book examines the lives of four people who caught up in illegal immigration. How far would you go to help someone who is desperate?

Owl Song at Dawn - Emma Claire Sweeney

I recently attended a literary evening organised by Emma and Emily Midorikawa. The title of Emma's book intrigued me and I'm very glad a bought a copy! People with disability are overlooked in literature as they often are in life, but not in this novel where they demonstrate strengths as well as the weaknesses we see all too readily.

Sunday, 11 December 2016

Christmas cards.

The first Christmas card in 1843.
I love sending and receiving Christmas cards and I still string them up around my living room as we did when I was a child. But when did the Christmas card tradition begin?

The first Christmas card was sent in 1843 by Henry Cole. A great innovator of the nineteenth century, he was instrumental in the re-organisation of the postal services and with Rowland Hill initiated the Penny Post in 1840.
Henry Cole commissioned John Callcot Horsely to design a greetings card to send to his acquaintances wishing them a happy Christmas. 50 cards were originally lithographed by the firm of Jobbins located in Warwick Court in Holborn, London, and were hand coloured by William Mason.

The card was in the form of a triptych with the outer panels depicting 'feeding the hungry' and 'clothing the naked' to remind recipients to remember those less fortunate than themselves. The centre panel showed a family of adults and children all enjoying a glass of wine. This drew a great deal of criticism at the time on the grounds of 'fostering the moral corruption of children.'

Soon the sending of cards became de rigueur for the middle classes. Early cards showed religious themes and the winter scenes we still often see but many featured flowers, animals or fairies and looked forward to the following year with scenes of spring.

Queen Victoria commissioned the first Official Christmas card that same decade - she also sent numerous cards to family members and her servants at Osborne and Windsor.

Charles Goodall & Sons of Camden Town was one of the first companies to produce Christmas cards on a large scale. Designs became very elaborate with decorations of silken fringes or lacy cut-outs while others were shaped like fans, candles or bells.  Pop-up cards would reveal winter scenes such as ice-skating on a mirrored pond.

Robins, still popular today, were featured from the 1850s. As Victorian postmen were nicknamed robins owing to their red uniforms, cards frequently depicted robins delivering cards. Father Christmas began to appear on cards some twenty years later.

In the years leading up the First World War, cards often illustrated inventions of the new century including motor-cycles, aeroplanes and cars. On the outbreak of war in 1914 the government considered banning the sending of greetings cards for security reasons but relented when it was appreciated that contact between soldiers and their families was vital for morale. The Royal Family revived the tradition of sending Christmas cards when the young Princess Mary decided to send every serving soldier and sailor a greetings card and a brass tin containing gifts. Similar boxes were also sent to nurses.

There was a significant increase in the number of cards sent during the war years, which was to be repeated during the Second World War when cards often depicted patriotic themes and symbols such as flags to convey national pride, but those featuring home and hearth were popular too.

The first charity cards are believed to be produced by UNICEF in 1949. Many a charity now relies on income from Christmas cards but to really benefit charities, buy those that are produced by the charity itself rather than those sold through High Street shops where the percentage for charity is often less than 10%.

Canada issued the first Christmas stamps in 1898 but the first UK Christmas stamps were not produced until 50 years ago. In 1966 a competition was set up by Tony Benn, then Postmaster General. Two six year olds won, with a design of a King of the Orient and a snowman respectively.

Royal Mail's recent research shows that most people still prefer to receive actual cards as opposed to e-cards or other social media greetings. I certainly do. Each year at least a couple of people I know announce via social media that they are not sending Christmas cards and giving the money to charity instead. While I totally approve of charity giving I always wonder why it's the sending of cards, that other people would enjoy, that gets dropped rather than some other Christmas tradition. I'd be much more impressed if people announced that they were not buying so much food this year, or were giving up the usual alcohol intake! I've probably been permanently crossed off a list or two now.

Every year I recycle my cards. The Woodland Trust ran a recycling scheme for 14 years with collection points at a number of High Street shops. They recycled over 600 million cards enabling them to plant 200,000 trees. Unfortunately their scheme ended in 2011 but since then Marks and Spencer have collected and recycled cards in support of The Woodland Trust and are doing so again this year.  Sainsbury's also run a card recycling scheme supporting the Forest Stewardship Council. Most council recycling takes cards too although of course they won't be supporting the tree charities. But whichever scheme you choose, please do recycle your cards.

Wishing you a very Merry Christmas, and for those that don't celebrate Christmas, I wish you a very happy winter solstice and to all of us a peaceful New Year. May 2017 bring tolerance and kindness.


Some of this article was first printed in The Greenacre Times issue 13 Winter 2009

Thursday, 10 November 2016

I love hearing of writing success.

I signed up for my first writing class about 10 years ago. The session began with a writing exercise lasting around 10-15 minutes followed by each of us reading their work out if they chose. There was no compunction but most did, which enabled the tutor to give some brief feedback. I recall that I was about third to read my humble effort on my first session. This was the first time I'd ever read my writing to anyone other than my daughter. Thank goodness I was third because by the time we had reached halfway through the class I realized that I was up against some seriously good writers. (I found my piece not long ago and was gratified to see that my writing has improved since then!)

The second half of the class allowed people to read from their works in progress for fuller feedback from the tutor and members of the class. The focus was always positive and supportive but weak writing was criticized with suggestions to improve it. I found it helped my writing to develop and that giving thoughtful criticism was also beneficial for one's own writing.

Members of the class were working on poems, short stories and novels. I loved hearing Barbara's fictionalized memoirs, funny, wry but also heart-breaking. Barbara had visual impairment so she often asked me to read these pieces out. It was an honour to do so. Jane was busy working on a novel in which the indomitable Mrs Maybury and her hapless friend got into all sorts of scrapes. Joyce was writing a novel set in 1976 where she evoked that unforgettable summer with small details - do you recall Aqua Manda? If not, you weren't a teenager in 1976! (Actually it has been revived: Aqua Manda.) Another writer, Rae, a teacher, wrote edgy stories with a dark side including those for young adults.

After 3 years I left the class to move on to setting up Greenacre Writers with Rosie Canning and sadly lost touch with some of that first group - but recently I reconnected with Rae Stoltenkamp, who wrote those edgy pieces. Rae is a passionate supporter of libraries in general and Herne Hill's Carnegie Library in particular.  A former English teacher she remains actively involved in helping people to gain literacy skills. In among her various projects Rae has recently published her novel Six Dead Men. She had already published books for younger readers but this was her first novel for adults. Rae talks about her journey toward independent publication on her blog here. To learn more about Rae and those Six Dead Men read her interview with Chantelle Atkins.
Follow Rae on Twitter @Raedenwrites

It's very easy to think when someone has a writing success that they're lucky. But we all know the work that goes in to those successes - that there will have been graft, doubts, tears, more graft plus persistence and determination. And probably somewhere along the line, cake and wine.

Well done Rae. Here's to your writing success. Wine and cake anyone?






Sunday, 23 October 2016

Finchley Remembered - Part II


In 2002 The Finchley Society published a book of local people's recollections. It was always on the cards that a second volume would follow.

It's taken a while but that has now come to fruition! September saw the launch of Finchley Remembered - Part II at Waterstones bookshop in North Finchley.

I was the book's editor so my task was to comb through the hundreds of anecdotes sent in by past and present Finchleyites recounting their recollections of Finchley. The material in the Finchley Society archives sent in over the years filled several box files. The first volume, Finchley Remembered, covered the early part of the 20th century so I focused on the middle decades. This volume broadly covers the 1930s though to the 70s. We collected a huge number of memories from the war and the fifties, detailing school days and leisure time. Many of today's children would be surprised at the freedom their grandparents enjoyed! The reams of paper from the archives included handwritten recollections, some in beautiful copperplate, many of which had to be double checked as the information sometimes contradicted that sent in by someone else. Memories do not always stick to facts!

One section recalls Finchley's famous folk - including memories of Spike Milligan, Eric Morecambe, Vera Lynn, and of course Finchley's former MP, Margaret Thatcher. One of my favourite anecdotes is when a group of O'level cookery students was asked to prepare canapes for a reception at which the MP would be presiding. 'Canapes! What were they? Posh Tory food? Who knew, and who cared? We were having a day off lessons.'
The Gaumont Cinema (North Finchley)
by Peter Marsh
Pictures selected from the thousands in The Finchley Society archives as well as photos sent in by contributors illustrate the text along with line drawings by two local artists, Peter Marsh and Mari I'Anson, and paintings by two others. My favourite is the drawing of the long-gone Art-Deco Gaumont Cinema, where I remember seeing films. Its former glory days which boasted a Wurlizter Organ and a restaurant had already passed by the time I knew it in the 70s.

The cover of the famous Finchley icon, the Christ's College Tower,  was painted especially for the book by Peter Marsh.

Copies of Finchley Remembered II can be bought at Waterstones N12, Waitrose North Finchley, N12 and directly from The Finchley Society online.

Tuesday, 30 August 2016

Books from Down Under

Those who follow my sporadic blog will know that travelling and books feature quite often. I haven't achieved my aim of travelling to every country from where I have a read a book, or even managed reading a book from every country I have visited, although I'm working on it.



My next planned trip is to Australia in a few weeks, and at least I can say I have read a number of Australian books. The first, which I read as a child, was my mother's copy of Seven Little Australians by Ethel M Turner. My mother had been a little Australian herself, coming to UK when she was ten years old. I later read Under Australian Skies by Phyllis Power. The former is still hailed as a classic, while the latter is, I suspect, now politically incorrect and has been brushed carefully under the carpet. Then there were, of course, the Lindsay books: The Magic Pudding by Norman Lindsay and Picnic at Hanging Rock by Joan Lindsay.

My Australian reading continued through my teens to adulthood. I read Colleen McCullough, when The Thorn Birds was all the rage in the late 70s, but much preferred Nancy Cato's All the Rivers Run, another epic. Marcus Clarke's For the Term of His Natural Life took a bit of reading but I was engrossed by it while My Brilliant Career by Miles Franklin left me cold! I also read a couple of Peter Carey's novels and two of Bryce Courtenay's.


More recently I read Geradine Brooks' Year of Wonders which I enjoyed, and March, which I wasn't so keen on. I loved Markus Zusak's The Book Thief, but have yet to read his other novels. 

One book that interested me was Murray Bail's Eucalyptus. (You don't get more Australian than that, so much so that my mother planted one, which of course she called a gum, in the garden of my parents' place in Devon where it flourished. Unlike the character in the book, I can't identify the exact species.) 

I like Kate Greville's books, but loathe The Slap by Christos Tsiolkas. It gained critical acclaim, but although I thought the initial premise was an interesting one, I didn't consider the novel delivered anything worth saying and the author missed an opportunity to really examine his theme.  And I'm pleased to say that none of the Australians I have met are as repellent as the characters he created. I would have happily slapped every one of them. I hope I won't encounter them on my trip!

Another disappointment, that I gave up on, was The Dressmaker by Rosalie Ham, which I thought poorly written. Clearly others disagreed with me as it, too, received critical acclaim! On the other hand, Graeme Simsion's The Rosie Project and its sequel kept me laughing out loud. His third novel, The Best of Adam Sharpe will be released the day before I set off on my travels and is a book I'll be looking out for.

On my Australian to-be-read list is Tim Winton - but do you have any other Australian recommendations?