Sunday, December 31, 2006

"All That Will Be"

Today is New Years Eve.
I'm enclosing a poem I wrote a few years ago. I wrote it during those days between Christmas and New Year, when the world was suddenly a tranquil place after a hectic Christmas and before the New Year frivolities.
Above is a stylish example of David Winston's superb work; it's called, fittingly enough, " Tranquility". It epitomises to me the silences of winter, its blissful stillness, and the spaces between all those celebrations.
And here's my poem. I write little poetry and I know this needs sculpting but hopefully it sums up this "moment in time" just a little. It's called
"New Years Eve At The End Of The World"
"At the cold and hollow empty end of the year
when winter falls steeply off the ends of the Earth,
days are short
and there's a goblin silence in black-silver evening.
Grey-gloom sky glowers between black-bone fingers
of skeleton trees,
her dapples of violet drifting, splashes of crimson,
dancing with clouds..
And in the icicle stillness,
I bend so low, to the depths of the world
and gather, safe for a second,
All that will be:
I hold it and touch it,
turn it for one enchanted moment,
until it's quivering,
like snowflakes, in my fingers,
and I watch:
All that will be."

Sunday, December 24, 2006

In The Deep Midwinter, Snow is Falling Snow On Snow..."

I write this blog on Christmas Eve; this painting ( exhibited in The Lady Lever Art Gallery, Port Sunlight ) captures the beauty of deep midwinter. It's called:" The shortening Winter Day is near a close"; it's a lovely title for a stunning painting. Light falls on snow as sun sets, as it glints through black leafless branches. And there are dark dramatic shadows casting colours and reflections on the whiteness..
It was painted in 1903 by the Scottish artist, Joseph Farquharson. He was born in Edinburgh in 1846. When he was twelve, Farquharson received a paintbox as a Christmas present; a year later, his first painting was exhibited at the Royal Scottish Academy. He died in 1935.
Today I'm enjoying this painting; I'm sure many people have and many will. I'm particularly hoping my friend Carolyn enjoys this glimpse. We've seen the painting together at the gallery and both feel the same: that Farquharson has created a magical wonderful place..

Thursday, December 21, 2006

Our Secrets Within..

Continuing the theme of handbags, I found a poem by Ruth Fainlight. It's moving and beautiful and reading this, I could smell and see and touch the contents of her mother's bag.
I also have a sheaf of my mother's letters, written to my father when they were very young. I think I'm probably just about old enough to appreciate them now!
Here is the lovely poem:


My mother's old leather handbag,
crowded with letters she carried
all through the War. The smell
of my mother's handbag: mints
and lipstick and Coty powder.
The look of those letters, softened
and worn at the edges, opened,
read, and refolded so often.
Letters from my father. Odour
of leather and powder, which ever
since then has meant womanliness,
and love, and anguish, and war.

Ruth Fainlight.

Bags For Our Stuff...

I'm having a new handbag for Christmas. I've decided money is well spent on shoes and handbags. My new bag isn't the one in the picture; I just stuck that picture in because that bag looks glossy and Christmassy and it's the sort of bag that accompanies you to parties if you wear dresses with shoestring straps ( I don't) and if you have elbows you can reveal ( I haven't) and if you have gorgeous painted nails the colour of shot silver( what's " shot silver"? Have I made it up?) This is a lovely bag but not my new one.

My new bag is moss green and soft; it's squashy and roomy and it's my friend already, even though it's only just bought. It's smiling pleasantly as I write, awaiting a swathe of wrapping paper around its comfy dependable body.

I have several handbags. My sporty black Rohan works hard for its living; it's accompanied me all over Europe and to SE Asia. And it likes the Lakes and Cornwall, just as I do; it's also particularly partial to London.It's remained constantly faithful, despite being lost beneath a bed in Athens, forgotten in a Gothic Quarter cafe in Barcelona and left swinging (wildly) from a chair in a bar in Bangkok .

I bought another favourite bag at Manchester airport two years ago, en route to Croatia. It's a wonderful warmish pinkish colour; it's fuchsia crossed with salmon. It holds everything from a bottle of water, camera, to books and glasses ( both reading and sun) . Last week I found a picture of my grandson George in its lining. George was one day old and I'd just met him; he was new and perfect and calm and wise and finding this forgotten photo completed a very fine day...

My oldest bag is burgundy leather, small and neat with three compartments; it has tasteful glints of gold and a slender strap on which it can sway gracefully from my shoulder. I bought this bag one sultry afternoon thirty five years ago; since then, it has swayed from my shoulder at Weddings, Funerals, Christenings, Graduations and also Celebrations for Many Things.
I needed a classy bag for an elegant wedding so I visited a small expensive leather shop in Chester ( long since gone); the bag cost a fortune. Unfortunately, I can't remember the size of that fortune but I remember feeling breathless on my way home and thinking how we'd have to live on poached eggs for a week. However, this bag still smells and looks gorgeous after all these years, so that fortune was money well spent. And my mother was right, always stressing: "Quality not quantity". In other words, class outlives tat.
The bag still contains "stuff" from decades ago; concert tickets, a special address, a meaningful postcard, a picture of a longdead Lakeland terrier.It's a well-travelled bag although recently, it's rested at home while Rohan took it's place. But it's seen me through good times and bad and hopefully, my new green one, beaming from the sofa as I write, will be just as essential in my life before long..

Friday, December 15, 2006

Being Honey Ryder..( Or Not)

On Wednesday, I saw Daniel Craig as James Bond in the 2006 version of Ian Fleming's " Casino Royal" .
In 1968, Craig was born yards away from where I write now, in a house on Liverpool Road, Chester.
In 1962 ( ouch! ), six whole years before Craig's birth, I watched ( with friends at the Odeon ) Sean Connery play Bond in "Dr No"; I saw Honey Ryder ( the 60's icon created by Ursula Andress) glide from the ocean at Crab Key in THAT bikini. And like every girl I knew, I Wanted To Be Honey Ryder.

**My friend Jen wanted to be Honey Ryder. And so probably did Kath. And Lesley too. And so did The Other Jan, although The Other Jan was glamorously dark and Honey was definitely BLONDE.
The boys at Kings School wanted their own Honey Rider. They often told us so. They wanted girls with long limbs and stunning looks; you'd no chance if you wore a navy blazer bearing a crest on its pocket that pompously said :" Honour Wisdom" or if you carried a satchel containing " Approach To Latin" and your lippie from Wooly's or if you wore a cream Panama hat that your cat slept in and your brother used as an ashtray. The boys wanted nothing less than a Honey Ryder Look Alike..
A pretty girl called Linda in the year above us ( Clairol blonde, Capstan habit ) almost succeeded; she customised her own bikini ( bought on a campsite in Abersoch) but in the City Baths, its colours ran, leaving Linda mortified and terrified and transparently revealed ( it seemed) to every teenage boy in Chester.
But it didn't put us off. We needed a bikini each, with a belt that would accomodate a knife, then that would be that. The knife was easy as my mother had drawers full, glittering and lethal in our kitchen; just bikinis were needed. But Dorothy Perkins couldn't oblige (unless one was partial to nauseous citrus or lime flowers or orange spots or purple dots AND also, most belts provided wouldn't secrete nail scissors, let alone weapons.)
So we tried Browns Of Chester ( a famous clothes shop my mother called "The Harrods of the North" ) but Browns of Chester turned up its Patrician nose and looked the other way.Or at least at women in fur coats rather than schoolgirls in seersucker dresses.
Today Brown's is Debenhams and is, unfortunately, much changed.
However, a prim shop assistant in black, eventually showed us two -piece swim suits ( Please don't put your fingers on them ) in "sensible navy" and then several " costumes" in black crimplene ( You'll look snug in these. Your mothers will approve. Tasteful. )
We were devastated by these choices. We didn't want "sensible", we didn't want "tasteful" and we certainly didn't fancy " snug"; " snugness" ( we were sure) was the last thing on Honey Ryder's mind..

BUT us being Honey Ryder was a fading dream, along with the after school light, along with Honey's knife, her BondGirl beauty ...
AND on the bus home, the bubble burst. Jen scanned an evening paper:
" Would you believe it?" she shrieked " You won't believe this in a million years.."
" What wouldn't we believe?" I grunted irritably, as did Jan and Kath and probably Lesley.
" It's Honey! She's really...." her voice petered out almost to nothing: " Honey's really old.."
" HOW old?" demanded Kath. There was silence. The bus rattled on. The bus conductor pushed back his cap and whirred his ticket machine and stopped in the aisle of the bus .
" Honey" said Jen, and she gasped: "Honey Ryder is TWENTYSIX..."

And that, you know, was The End Of It.

The 2006 version of the film starring Daniel Craig ( aged not even 26, but nearer 38! ) is excellent. It's a long exciting film in classic Bond tradition with a stunning new star as 007.
I could almost say I think he's actually the best Bond yet...
** Names have been changed to protect the Innocent!

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

"Pleeese Mrs Maclaren, Let Me Be The Virgin..."

Now Is The Season Of The Nativity Play and I am remembering...
Years ago, as a teacher in South London, I brushed Mary's hair till it gleamed like silk and no-one could possibly guess she'd had nits last week.
In Port Sunlight, I ironed Joseph's teatowel headgear till it stretched over the ironing board like immaculate perfection.
And at home, just to show real dedication, I scoffed a pound of Terry's All Gold in one delicious evening (watching Starsky And Hutch) so that next day, my very own Wise Man had his very own box as his present for the Babe.

The Christmas Nativity Play; it's the Show that sorts Asses from Angels, Shepherds from Sheep. It sorts Virgins ( in blue silk) from 3rd Innkeepers ( in grubby Tshirts) ), it sorts Angel Gabriel ( gossamer wings, Granny's antique camisole) from Narrator's Understudy ( mud-caked scarf from "lost property" )
It's "Life In a Nutshell", It's "The Starring Role", It's "You're The Donkey, Dear, So Better Luck Next Year", .... It sorts boys from girls, girls from boys and at six years old, in a village school in Cheshire, I wanted to be The Virgin.
I prayed ( "Pleeese, Mrs Maclaren, let me be The Virgin"). I learned my Tables, my Spellings, even my Manners, to be The Virgin and I sang "wonderful, wonderful Copenhagen" in sweetest voice, so that eventually I WAS chosen to be The Virgin. Jesus was just a scruffy toy panda from the Wendy House, Joseph had a permanently runny nose, and one of The Kings ( Caspar) wanted to keep his real name ( Norman Pearson) even when gowned-up on stage. But I was in Heaven!

Later, as a teacher, I seethed behind curtains, mopped up sick behind curtains, shouted:" You're all Stars! " behind curtains. I praised, cajolled, prompted, roared behind curtains. I pulled curtains at the right time and curtains at the wrong time. I puffed on a fag in a stockroom, gorged Cadbury's in a stockroom, swigged sherry from the staff room in a schooner in the stockroom. And all the time I hoped 28 children would remember 3 C's: cues, costumes and choruses.

As a parent, I gasped with pride; I saw golden haired sons sing on stage while my husband got tears in his eyes and my mother's mascara ran and my father's voice went croaky and I sat on the front row in dusty school halls glittering with tinsel ( the hall, not me) grinning like Miss Piggy in The Muppet Show.
And I smiled at dewy-eyed grandmas, agreed that Donna's a Star In The Making, Dean should be at Choir School, that "Nobody noticed the puddle Tracey left by the Manger" And I clapped till my hands ached and I sang "The First Noel" till certain poor shepherds weren't certain of anything any more..

AND THEN only last Saturday we visited The Playhouse Liverpool for Tim Firth's ( "Calendar Girls" "All Quiet On The Preston Front" "Neville's Island" etc ) marvellous " The Flint Street Nativity". It's a play for adults about children producing a Nativity; the children are played by adults. Firth catches (brilliantly) the whole "message" of the situation; he creates characters we recognise from childhood, situations we half remember, situations easily translated and understood as adult ones...just as the characters of the " children" could be our friends, neighbours, that man down the street. There's sadness and humour ( loads of it) and there's music, singing, laughter and possibly a tear or two..... and it's a fabulous evening out at the Liverpool Playhouse till the end of January.....

Monday, December 11, 2006

Capturing The Pageantry...

Geoff Price is a Chester painter who was once a jockey. This painting by Price ( which is untitled) brilliantly shows the thrill of the horse race with its colour and its speed. I love the angle of the painting; the viewer couldn't be more involved!

Geoff Price likes: "to capture racing's pageantry, the jockey's colours, but more importantly, its movement, the physical power of jockey and horse..."

Price has exhibited widely, including in San Andreas, Columbia; at the Air Gallery, Dover St, London; in the Picton, Piccadilly; the Intaglio Gallery, Manchester.

Saturday, December 09, 2006

"Remembering The Light Of The Horses.."

This painting," Whistlejacket" is by George Stubbs, born in Liverpool in 1724. He appreciated both the anatomical and the lyrical beauty of the horse.

In my writing classes this week, we looked at a wonderful poem called " Horses". It was written by Pablo Neruda, a Chilean poet, and translated from the Spanish by Stephen Mitchell.

Remembering a winter in Berlin, Neruda descibes a particularly stunning image.Other more important happenings connected with that time have been forgotten, but this image was so sudden, so powerful in its beauty, that it was unforgettable..


"From the window I saw the horses.

I was in Berlin, in winter. The light
was without light, the sky without sky.

The air white like wet bread.

And from my window a vacant arena,
bitten by the teeth of winter.

Suddenly, led by a man,
ten horses stepped out into the mist.

Hardly had they surged forth, like a flame,
than to my eyes they filled the whole world,
empty till then. Perfect, ablaze,
they were like ten gods with pure white hoofs,
with manes like a dream of salt.

Their rumps were worlds and oranges.

Their colour was honey, amber, fire.

Their necks were towers
cut from the stone of pride,
and behind their transparent eyes
energy raged, like a prisoner.

And there, in the silence, in the middle
of the day, of the dark, slovenly winter,
the intense horses were blood
and rhythm, the animating treasure of life.

I looked, I looked and was reborn: without knowing it,
there, was the fountain, the dance of gold, the sky,
the fire that revived in beauty.

I have forgotten that dark Berlin winter.

I will not forget the light of the horses."

Later the class wrote about particularly strong images lingering in their own memories. One woman recalled being five years old; her mother came downstairs with a suitcase, threatened to leave marriage and family. The writer hadn't thought about this for decades but through revealing this moment in time, she showed her mother's dilemma brilliantly. An elderly man described his first lecture at university; this was when few young men of his background had this opportunity. We glimpsed his excitement, the delight he felt in the green tiled lecture hall. Another woman showed us the exact moment she fell in love , someone else described the colours of Caribbean skies at dawn. We saw the moment when she recognised this natural perfection.
We had glimpses into many different lives; they provoked our thoughts and as always, we felt richer for the privelege. And all these glimpses, I imagine, could be called, as Neruda said, "the animating treasure of life"...

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

"When I am an Old Woman, I shall sail to Iceland in a boat...."

Yesterday evening I visited the touring GRuMpy OlD woMEn Show at the Royal Court Theatre Liverpool. It starred three talented actresses who succeed in many art forms (acting, writing, directing etc ) They were Jenny Eclair, Annette Badland and Rhona Cameron.
The audience consisted mainly of women; all shapes, sizes, ages of women ; stiff perms, glossy locks, greasy locks, stiletto heels, trainers, no make-up, full make-up, broad vowels, clipped vowels, faux fur, real fur, anoraks, "bobble" hats ( bobble hats!) Hermes scarves, footy scarves, black lurex, black dungarees, pencil skirts, elasticated waist skirts ( plenty of these) tight jeans on large women, baggy jeans on skinny women...and the three performers empathised with one and all, producing a show brimming with hilarious "quips" ( THAT word shows my age! Ha! ) and rapid one-liners and even the occassional heart-rending, thought-provoking, tear-jerking observation that drew communal " ahs!" and " oohs!" amid the gurgling laughter...
But I was disappointed. NOBODY in my vicinity in the theatre wore purple. ( Maybe they wore purple Damart vests.) Nobody was eating three pounds of sausages in one go. Or wearing a red hat that didn't suit. And there was a distinct lack of satin sandals....
I WAS disappointed. ( I love that poem, Jenny Joseph.) PERHAPS the train load of Jolly Women who trekked over from Bickerton ( in the wilds of Cheshire) all sat down on the pavement when they got tired on their way home OR maybe they ran their sticks along the public railings on their way home...( hmm. it was more brolly weather though) or perhaps my three friends who accompanied me, are SECRETLY learning to spit...(Mrs S? JMF? Mrs K?)

But never mind. Once home, I found a very special book bought several years ago at the wonderful Saltaire Mill gallery near Bradford, Yorks. It's " The Redbeck Anthology of British South Asian Poetry" and it includes an entertaining response to Jenny Joseph's wonderful poem "Warning" . It's written by Ketaki Kushari Dyson, who was born in Calcutta in 1940, educated there and also in Oxford. It's called, simply, " To Jenny Joseph" and the narrator is clearly an Asian lady talking of HER old age...( I've picked out my favourite parts)

" But Jenny, I already wear purple,
swathes of purple, cascades of pimiento-red,
and all the bold patterns that looms and needles unfold,
so what shall I do when I'm old?

I swear to you, I have a sari of luminous silk
where purple sea-waves beat upon beaches of gold,
and one which is a jade river, in whose estuary
ride the ten incarnations of Vishnu-a majestic bestiary.

When the sun beats down, I carry a parasol,
which no one does in Kidlington, and when I hear thunder
and the trip switch going "tock", turning off my computer,
I rush out in sandals, in welcome the rain.

I tell you, Jenny, what I shall NOT do when I'm old.
I shall never eat three pounds of sausages at a go.
But I shall chop onions, chillies, and coriander
and pile it all on dollops of peanut butter on toast.

When I am an old woman, I shall sail to Iceland in a boat
and speak to eagles, if there be any left.
From a snug cottage window I shall watch Hekla spit fire
and chalk my last poem on a square of wood-framed slate."

Thankyou Beryl Cook for the brilliant picture and Jenny Joseph/K Kushari Dyson for the poems...they make ageing almost desirable!

Friday, December 01, 2006

Putting Lilly's Blog (1912) into my Blog ( 2006)

For a fortnight last August, I had an excellent writing "splurge" . I'm not very good at maintaining my splurges ( other things too easily interrupt the flow...sorry, the "splurge" )
However, this short splurge produced 3 short-short stories, two short stories and a longer short story called " Lilly's Diary" which was adapted from something even longer.

I sent " Lilly's Diary" to a competition for a short historical story ( max 5000 wds) run by an Irish Publishing Company ( Fish Publishing) and recently, I was pleased to hear it was shortlisted. Today I hear it's unplaced but it's made me promise myself more " splurges"...
And now I see the wisdom of my father's words ( uttered years ago) when having read a story I wrote at school, he said:"Put it away in a drawer for a week and THEN go back and edit it..." It was good advice; Lilly needs more editing which I shall eventually attempt to do....

" Lilly's Diary" is told in the voice of Lilly Faithfull, a young girl living in a Cheshire village in 1912. Hopefully, it's a glimpse into someone's life, a peep into a setting in time and place. This period of history fascinates me, particularly in relation to women's lives in those early years of the last century. This is Lilly's story:

"Lilly's Diary".

I saw a picture today in the newspaper. I’ll never forget it; the slope of a ship, as it sank.
I write fast. My writing fills the page. My words scrawl across it.

My mother says memories are precious; I should bequeath mine to future generations. I say a string of pearls would be better, or a diamond tiara. Mother smiles; she says one day I’ll realise that she’s right and she goes on smiling while she peels the potatoes. She has great faith in memories. She has great faith in smiles. She has great faith in potatoes.

So now in April 1912, I’m writing my diary. Mother says my great grandchildren will find it in a dusty attic early next century. Their children will sprawl on their laps and marvel. They’ll thrill to the memories of Lilly Ann Faithful. I will, of course, have gone. So I’m writing for Posterity, Dear Reader.

I write fast. Words scrawl.

At school this afternoon, I was pulling faces at Cyril, whispering jokes to Thomas, when suddenly we were plunged into tragedy. Being plunged into tragedy is like falling into a pond or like Alice Liddell must’ve felt when she plunged down her rabbit hole. Those words also mirror what happened to the people in the tragedy; they were, quite literally, plunged into tragedy. And now I feel sorrow for the whole Human Race.

I think I must write about less dreadful things for a few pages. It doesn’t mean that my heart aches any less for those who suffered; it doesn’t mean I no longer think about them. It just means I’m remembering that ordinary things precede tragedies. And ordinary things follow.

My writing fills the page. My words fill my head.

Today my sister Fran and I were late for school. This is rare. We dawdled under a sky thudding with blue; our cold dark schoolroom was not the place to be. We picked flowers from beneath the hedgerow; we spied on a tramp as he drank ale on the towpath. When we arrived, Mr Browning our Headmaster stood at the door marked “ Girls” studying his pocket watch. His eyes were anxious like White Rabbit’s in “Alice in Wonderland”.
“Ladies, at last you’ve graced us with your presence” Mr B’s eyes were marble-blue hard: “Is everything alright at home?” Mr Browning often says that to Kitty whose parents drink all night, and to Cyril, who wets himself at home time and sometimes has bruises on his arms.
“ Everything’s fine, sir” said Fran. We were late once before when we’d fed our hens porridge and bread; they’d coughed so much that Mother said we gave them croup. But Fran was on the ball as usual.
“ Today we’ve been reading Ecclesiastics, sir. We’ve resolved to use its teachings in everyday life. “ My sister simpered like a beautiful doll. I held my breath.
“ And which teachings are these, Frances?” Mr B gently twanged his small cane across his fingers.
Frances beamed. “ I imagine you know them all, sir. I’m not so knowledgeable.”
In school, we heard children starting their Prayers. We heard the scrape of benches as they stood up. We heard Etheline the assistant teacher twirl a few chords on the piano. We heard the clock inside chime nine. We heard children begin to sing “ All things bright and beautiful” in sweet piercing voices, so high that their words almost hurt. But Frances saved the day.
“ Yes, sir, we read Ecclesiastes. We read the bit saying never give a wicked woman liberty to go abroad. We had a wicked neighbour who took liberties. Our mother said she gadded, not abroad, but to other villages. And she came to a bad end.” Fran paused dramatically “ I can’t say how this bad end came; I’d bring tears to your eyes. But this morning, sir, Lily and I realised how splendid the Bible is. It’s a chronicle of all that happens in this world of ours.” Fran beamed “And it’s timeless in its teachings.”
Mr B was bedazzled, unsure what his reaction should be. But he solved this by manoeuvring us through the door into the schoolroom and the children inside turned as one to watch our entrance. Etheline banged strident chords on her piano. Mr B strode to the front of the schoolroom and everyone started the hymn again, singing about a purple-headed mountain with a river running by and strangely, I thought of our mother’s purple tipped breasts, which I saw sometimes if I loitered in her bedroom in the mornings. And then I shivered at the thought and for some unaccountable reason, I sang more lustily than ever.
After the hymn, Mr B, standing before the whole school stared at Frances over the top of his glasses. His watery blue eyes filled and his voice rose with every word.
“ Frances and Lilly were late today, but they’re forgiven. I really have no choice but to forgive, because do you know the reason for this lapse, children?” He raised his eyebrows: “ I wonder, can anyone guess?”
Kitty Brown giggled. Cyril Jones clicked marbles in his trouser pocket. Etheline Sewell, toes pointed inwards, hands clasped together, smiled coyly; I watched a sliver of sunlight pick out glittery strands in her hair. Her adoration for Mr B made her glow, turned her almost beautiful…
“ Well” said Mr B “ I’ll tell you. They were studying the Good Book. They were delayed in the tasks of their day because they chose to peruse wisdom. And Frances will tell us why”
I sidled my clammy hand into Fran’s; surely this would flaw my cocky sister. But Fran drew herself up to her full height (4ft 11 ins), pressing her chest with her long fingers so that they crinkled her newly starched pinafore.
“ The Bible is special, sir.,” said Fran “Our mother says so, as do you and Miss Sewell and everyone at Sunday school. Without the Good Book, we are, quite simply…” Fran peered round at her audience, then continued: “ without it, we are nothing. This morning Lilly and I discovered our priorities”
There was an awed silence in the schoolroom. Etheline gazed up at Mr B, eyelashes fluttering. Fran continued: "Our Family Bible lives in our dresser drawer; we dust it each Sunday. Our birth dates are inscribed on the front page in our mother’s copperplate." And then Fran’s voice fell to a heart stopping whisper: “ And some of our deaths are inscribed there too”

I write fast. My words fill the page; letters shiver, the ink looks very black.

And I shivered at Fran’s words; I remembered my brothers who passed on as babes, the tiny sister we lost. And a collective sigh shivered around the schoolroom, a moan almost, because several children had lost precious little brothers, sweet little sisters. Somewhere, I heard Thomas’s embarrassed laughter.
“Thank you Frances. “ Mr B’s cultivated tones soothed us, like the stroking of ivories on a piano. "And does Mrs Faithful offer any more thoughts on the Bible? I know her to be the most perceptive of women.”
“ Yes, sir, she has many thoughts; in our house, thoughts are my mother’s prerogative.” Frances twinkled, her brightness bounced off every surface in our schoolroom. “ Mother says that the thoughts and stories in the Bible are like a magical looking glass, that they reflect everything that happens in our world. She says the Bible is a looking glass and that’s why it’s special”
Mr B fiddled with his cane. Frances had answers for everything. Etheline bashed out chords on the piano and trilled, “ He who would valiant be” and we all yelled “ ‘gainst all disaster!” as loud as we dared, little knowing then what terrible disaster had befallen the most unfortunate of people…
The hymn finished and there was silence. Everyone cast sidelong glances at Fran. She was Florence Nightingale. She was Queen Victoria. She was Joan of Arc. She was every heroine that had ever been. Then a small voice quivered from amongst the children: "Frances Faithful, you and Lilly like the story of Alice, and lots of other stories too. Is that why you find the Bible so interesting? I think it’s because you like words and characters and places and plots and the Bible has these in abundance”
Everyone turned and stared and gasped as this eloquent voice belonged to Clara Higgins. Clara Higgins never speaks, despite being the richest girl in school with a dining room in her house and a mirror over her sideboard. These are almost unheard of luxuries in our village. Clara continued to speak before a stunned assembly.
“ I’ve read Alice “ she gushed (Clara actually gushed) “ I too think Alice is wonderful. And so is the Queen of Hearts and the Cheshire cat and the Mock Turtle and the Dormouse who falls asleep all the time; he’s like Cyril when Cyril’s stuck on his Tables!”
Goodness, Clara Higgins had made a joke. The whole school tittered, even the Infants who were too little to know what was happening. And then Clara finished: “ And can you all imagine WHAT it’s like to dance a Lobster Quadrille?”
And she twirled round and round and danced out of her place, along a stunned line of children and then she turned and twirled and danced back to her place and everyone stared in amazement.
Clara had spoken. Clara, who was normally silent! Ruby Parker, who bit her nails down to the quick (and had to sit with them in a red inkwell as punishment) turned so suddenly that the ink on her fingers splattered like blood. So Mr B took the bull by the horns (a manoeuvre he frequently stresses as essential in life) and he burst into applause and yelled (Mr B actually yelled):” Well done, Clara Higgins. Well done Clara Higgins for speaking out. Well done for dancing, well done for twirling.”
And we all cheered and voices whirled to the rafters and Clara blushed to her roots. And she smiled for the rest of the day. (And THIS, despite the news we later heard…)

The dreadful news haunts me. I write fast. I hear cries and shouts of those who suffered. I see faces; feel the sense of loss around me. It’s here in my bedroom as I write this diary, as I lie on my bed, as Fran sleeps beside me.
I write fast in my diary. My writing fills the page, my words scrawl across it. I’m thinking about school. I’m thinking about school because it’s a safe place, a predictable place; it’s always there. I’m thinking about the tragedy, hearing voices, the cries, the sea. The sea is unsafe, the sea is unpredictable, but the sea is always there too.

I continue. School is very small. There are fifty children aged between five and fourteen. It sounds a lot but the difference in ages is large and also the children come from a wide area. We’ve two teachers Mr B and Etheline. Sometimes a farmer’s wife called Mrs Potts who smells of damp blankets and lavender water trudges over fields to read us Parables or make tedious raffia mats out of raffia. (Raffia is from palm trees in Madagascar. That’s the loveliest word I know. I intend to have a son called Madagascar)
Once Mrs Potts talked to us about the death of Queen Victoria. She sobbed into a white lawn handkerchief, borrowed from Etheline, who whispered to Mr B how other people’s uncontrolled emotions were difficult to handle. Fran thinks Etheline would very much like a glimpse of Mr B’s uncontrolled emotions. She also wondered if Mrs P and Queen V had been related as she reckoned that was the only explanation for Mrs P’s enormous grief.

Now I’m thinking about grief, how people cope. I’m lying on my bed with Fran and I wonder how I’d cope with such grief. My words tremble across the page, and then gather speed as if they want to reach a finishing post.

I carry on.

The Infants learn their numbers by pushing beads on an abacus and their letters by tracing the alphabet in a tray of silver sand. They are herded into one small dark classroom with windows placed so high up in the wall, that when we were Infants, we felt like little animals sunk into the ground. The saving grace was the large cage of silkworms Etheline keeps in a corner; we could watch them build their cocoon, but even then, only if we’d behaved particularly well.
“ Nature’s industry “ said Etheline “ A lesson for us all”
The rest of school, those no longer Infants, lord it in one enormous schoolroom divided by a sliding door which when opened, sounds like a desperate dying pig. Once Fran and I witnessed the last moments of a very old sow, so we know about such dreadful sounds.
Mr B teaches everyone except the Infants, dodging between his two classes, in and out of the sliding door. I had a nightmare once, dreaming that he was split in half by the doors and came back into our part of the schoolroom as a much-reduced character. Fran says he’s like an overactive cuckoo popping dementedly out of his clock.
Today Mr B declared a History lesson. History is my favourite; that’s why recording my own history in this diary is so important to me. Mr B said: "Henry the Eighth knew all his Tables, so did all his Wives.” And he hopped from one group to the other between the sliding doors. "Now! Class one will recite fifty times the list of Henry’s Wives, Class two will recite their Tables! We’ll go from Times Two to Times Twelve! Repeat them all three times!” And then he whispered so that everyone fell silent: “ And keep your arms folded until we finish.”
Then he swept back into the other class to activate the chant about Henry’s Wives, so that soon one group was booming Tables and the second booming: "Divorced Beheaded Died Divorced Beheaded Survived"
And the sound roared in my head like a stormy sea and I closed my eyes and shouted my Tables louder than all the Divorced Beheaded Dieds so that those Tables lodged in my memory forever. And suddenly Mr B paused in his chanting and looked thoughtful for a second, staring hard at Etheline. Fran nudged me in my ribs.
“ A future Wife? “ she giggled “ But will she survive?”

I think I’m ready. I think I’m ready to describe the news. Fran lies beside me on our bed breathing gently. Her hair floats on the pillow. I think of mermaids. I think of the sea, the oceans. I hear the sound of the Atlantic Ocean. I hear the cries that have haunted me since the news. But I’m ready to write. I’m ready.

This is what happened. At two o’clock, Mr Browning dragged open the doors between classrooms. The chants of Wives and Tables had long finished. Mr B’s face was parchment pale; his blue eyes were pink as though he’d been crying.
“Children, I need your urgent and devout attention” His voice was cracked and his words were broken. We knew he had something vital to impart. The whole school held their breath.
“ Children, this is a mournful day. My heart is heavy as I stand before you.”
Mr B talks like that. He’s a solemn man; he looks like pictures of Mr Gladstone. My mother says he came from a house with a hunting lodge. Mother says that although Mr B’s circumstances are now reduced, he’s still a man of stature. However, today he was distraught. Fran raised her eyes to Heaven.
“ What’s happened?” she hissed,” the last time he wanted devout attention, was when Arthur had died….”.
Last year, Arthur from our class had been found dead on his father’s farm, head first in a bucket of pigswill. On hearing this in Prayers, we’d murmured how we’d miss Arthur. We’d sung, “God be in my head”, although Fran changed words to “God be in Arthur’s head” in view of the nature of Arthur’s accident. Mr B then requested us say nice things about Arthur before the whole school and also before Arthur’s family who joined us in school. Richard Crabtree was touchingly eloquent.
“Arthur” Richard said “had a permanent smile that cheered our days”
Richard didn’t add that Arthur’s permanent smile was because Arthur was permanently simple.
. Fran brought tears to our eyes
“Arthur” Fran said "slew the dragons of greed, envy, and selfishness. Arthur was legendary like his namesake the King.”
But everyone lied; things were said to please his snivelling father, sobbing mother and his two grandmothers who both passed out and had to be given smelling salts behind the blackboard. Nobody had liked Arthur; nobody would sit by him or be his friend. And for weeks after, Arthur’s empty place in the classroom haunted us. Fran said he haunted the lavatory too and the cupboard where we kept prayer books; both places smelt weirdly of Arthur’s strange sweet breathe.
Back to today. At two o’clock, Mr Browning stood before us.

Now my writing is weary and sad and it trundles across the page.

“ Children, be calm. Children, be still " Mr B’s voice was reedy as a tired piccolo.
“I wonder whose got their head stuck in a bucket this time?” Fran whispered.
Mr B rose to his dais at the front of the schoolroom. We thought by the pinkness of his eyes that the world had ended. We soon discovered that many people’s world actually had ended. These people included women in furs and men in dinner suits and Irish cabin boys and a whole orchestra in a ballroom and people with one-way tickets to The Other Side Of The World. But before Mr B could continue, Miss Sewell piped up.
“Children” she said, “You’ll recall Mr Browning’s words as long as you reside on Earth. ”
And she swiped her cane across the blackboard. She was plump, like Queen Victoria, with the tiniest of waists. Last Sunday, she’d been seen in Mr B’s sidecar attached to his motorbike. Many crude suggestions had been made as to their destination. But now her cane slithered across the chalky blackboard and we stared at her broad hips, sturdy boulders swathed in black serge, on each side of the tiny waist.
“ Hush, Miss Sewell!” Mr Browning glared “ I’m waiting for Absolute Still”. When Arthur died, he waited for Perfect Peace; perhaps this was a different kind of news. “When I can hear pins drop, I’ll begin” Mr B continued.
So Cyril dropped a marble, an ice blue glittering one that bounced and clattered and finally sped to Etheline’s neat little feet. Hearts thumping, we watched her trap it beneath her foot, eyes suddenly witch-hard. Then she smiled at Mr Browning and the witch eyes lit up like sun through clouds.

In my bedroom my writing slows. My heart feels as though it might stop.

Mr Browning cleared his throat. He has a large Adam’s apple, which I often long to touch. I watch it moving in his throat like a small, trapped creature quivering beneath his skin.
“If you sliced through his Adam’s apple, it’d be rotten to the core!” I thought, and then my ridiculous thoughts dried up and like everyone in our schoolroom, I listened in horror and my heart beat fast and my body ached and my feet felt as though I’d been trudging through snow.
Mr Browning’s voice stretched over us: “Tragedy has appeared in the waters of the North Atlantic. Miss Sewell is right; you will remember when and where you heard this news for the rest of your lives. You are lucky ones, safe on land in the warmth of Blessed England. Not for you the terrible waters of an ocean.” He mopped his brow with an enormous calico handkerchief; the warmth of England was clearly proving too much.
Etheline’s eyes grew dewy with love. All pins could have been heard had they been dropped; Cyril’s marbles in his trouser pockets stilled. In Mr B’s perfect peace, I heard skin breathing, saw hair grow on children’s heads; I think I even heard daffodils on Mr B’s desk praying for silence.

“Titanic is no more,” boomed Mr B (Mr B rarely booms) “She collided with an iceberg on her maiden voyage. The Titanic, children, is no more….”.
We had all heard much about this ship. We read about her launch in the paper, we discussed how she was built with Mr B in school. Some of us drew pictures of her. Kitty wrote a poem. Thomas said he wanted to be a cabin boy on “Titanic” more than anything else in the world. And some of us wrote stories, pretending to be people aboard the ship. Fran was the captain. I was a wealthy American called Lucy White sailing to New York to marry the man of my dreams. By the close of my story, I felt I knew Lucy White. Now my heart leaped for Lucy White…

My writing is slow. My writing crawls across the page…this is the saddest of things. Lucy never existed, but so many people did.

Children cried in the schoolroom. Mary Anne sobbed because a year ago her father drowned, fishing from Blackpool. She said memories came back. She said she went to Blackpool last Christmas and her whole family sang “ Good King Wenceslas” on the beach. Thomas laughed because laughter was his standard response. But he said he was sorry. He said he wished he could change. He said he would pray for the cabin boys who died.
And we were subdued by the images of a sinking ship. We were subdued by images of screaming people, children separated from parents, husbands kissing wives for the very last time. We felt the cold, the bitterness, and the ice in the water. We smelt the fear on the decks, the terror in the cabins. And our classroom was quiet and children were stunned because Mr Browning painted such pictures with his words and Etheline Sewell wept on his shoulder and our hearts drowned in the sea with the poor suffering people.

Later in the afternoon, Fran and I trailed home. We crossed the yard from the alley and saw our parents through the window. As we shuffled in, my father was thumping his fists down on the table; he’d been reading a newspaper report about the Titanic.
“How dare they? How dare they let it happen? The Toffs got the lifeboats first! Would you believe it? But by George you’d believe it as it’s the way of the world!”
Our parents slumped in their chairs, staring at artists’ impressions in the newspaper of “Titanic” as she sank. From their fury and their dejection, I gathered quickly that in their opinion, a grave injustice had been done.
“Who are the Toffs?” said Fran. She bent over our father in his chair, fiddled playfully with his ears; this usually put him in good humour, but not today. Our father was vehement.
“ Toffs get privilege. Toffs get money. Toffs get First Class. They’ve clout, bearing, and rights, simply by luck of their birth. And it was they who got away sharp from that stricken ship. They got the lifeboats and the rest got one if they were lucky...”
“And a lot were unlucky” murmured Mother, her hand firmly covering my father’s.
He was livid; his eyes were like torches glimmering in snow in the paleness of his face. He banged his fist hard on the wall and tulips shook in a vase, their red petals fluttering onto the tablecloth.
“You deserve a life, madam, you’re wearing pearls…that’s what they said!” My father ranted and Fran and I stood by, speechless for once.
We knew all the facts; Mr B had told us about icebergs, the dangers of the North Atlantic, amid Cyril’s marbles, Etheline’s adoration, and the praying daffodils.
And my father thundered: “Titanic, girls, was split into water tight compartments. The builders said that even if three flooded, the ship would stay afloat, but five flooded and the whole boat went down, taking all those folk to their doom”. His eyes were wild: “And most of the third class went, those who’d scrimped to be there in the first place, they went down into the icy waters…”
“ And missed their rightful place in the lifeboats.” Mother added, stroking my father’s arm but he flung his arm away, so that milk splattered from a jug into our faces, teacups rattled and clinked.
“This world must change!” My father yelled and we nodded sagely in agreement.
My mother remained calm. “The world should be fairer and more equal and it’s really up to us to change it.” Her words were measured, moved slowly like clouds in a summer sky; then she touched our father’s cheek with the tips of her fingers.
“I know, Ted.” Mother whispered, “I know. We all know. The poor, bless their hearts, must never miss their boat again.” And I marvelled at our mother’s gentleness, at her serenity.
Fran scooped up tulip petals from the tablecloth, dabbed up the spilt milk with a cloth: “Pity the poor didn’t miss Titanic in the first place, never mind miss the life boats” and Mother frowned, nodded her head towards the yard.
“ Off you go, you girls. The cats need feeding. They’re fussing in the yard. “ So I left with Fran and she fed the cats while I sat on the back step and closed my eyes and in my head I saw pictures, images. …
I saw hordes of people, raggedy folk, like the family down our street who sleep on egg boxes. I saw girls with bare feet, bad teeth, dull complexions, running down the towpath chasing a barge on the canal. And this barge was full of elegant people enjoying an afternoon sail and waving from it was a lady in a large feathered hat, who sipped sherry, twirled a parasol. But although Fran and I ran fast on the towpath, we couldn’t catch up, we couldn’t climb on that barge and my mother’s words rang through the air: “The poor, Lilly Faithful, must never miss their boat again…”

I stop writing; Fran lies sleeping. There is dampness on her cheeks. She’s been crying in her sleep.
I mull over the news. I mull over the day. I want people to know how we heard the news so I’ve written my diary for Posterity. One day in the early years of another century my great grandchildren will find it in a dusty attic. They will thrill to the memories of Lilly Ann Faithful; I will, of course, have gone. And I lie beside Fran and my thoughts fill our room and there are words in my head waiting to be written…