Tuesday, January 30, 2007

"Retaining The Essence Of Himself..."

Years ago, believe it or not, when Peter O'Toole appeared at Bristol Old Vic, someone was specially employed to wake him up each morning; his late arrivals for rehersals were legendary.

And when O'Toole starred as Lawrence of Arabia in the film which made his name, his producer, Sam Spiegl, encouraged him to undertake nose surgery, so he'd look the part.
BUT to me, O'Toole has always looked wonderful, with or without fancy new beak...

Last Saturday, we saw O'Toole's " Venus"; this is said to be his Swansong. The feathers, however, may fly if it is...

"Venus" was written by Hanif Kureishi and directed by Roger Mitchell, who have worked together before.
Interesting actually, because with its lush cast list ( plus London setting, elderly characters) , "Venus" reminded me somewhat of Schepsisi's 2002 film adaptation of Graham Swift's novel " Last Orders". Then we were treated to Michael Caine, Tom Courtney, Helen Mirren et al ..

BUT the cast list for Venus is equally distinguished. O'Toole plays Maurice (ageing thespian) and Leslie Phillips plays Ian ( 2nd ageing thespian). Vanessa Redgrave is Maurice's husky-voiced, long-suffering wife and Richard Griffiths is The Faithful Friend/ 3rd ageing thespian. Newcomer Jodie Whittaker plays the cocky, Potnoodle-guzzling, leggy northern lass, Jessie; she is the Venus in question.

This film deserves accolades. It really does. It deserves accolades for its acting, writing, direction, music.( This includes the laid-back, honeyed-voice of Corinne Bailey Rae.) " Venus" undoubtedly warrants several Oscars.
I say this because I have loved and known and cared for three elderly family members. And I can vouch that " Venus" ( through characters, settings, dialogue, plot) paints a superbly accurate portrait of people at the summit ( better than "end") of their lives. The film has understood that whatever is happening to people, they retain the absolute essence of themselves; they retain their own recognisable " goodness", their " badness", their personal measure of humour, courage, spark. It's all there, beneath tablets, wheelchairs, increasing fragility of mind or body. Even a confused beautiful old lady, will retain her quirky-quickness, keep her loveliness. I know this because I loved and knew one such old lady .

AND old people still have lusts; once a rouee ( Maurice), always a roueee ( Maurice).
And that's, of course, where Jessie comes in. Their love affair is lustful; at least to Maurice. Jessie calls the shots and allows worship only from afar. Maurice is impotent, but he desires Jessie; he can occassionally touch her hand when permitted, he can sniff ( yes, sniff) her delicate neck, but that's his lot. ( Well, almost.)

Maurice lets Jessie manipulate him because he craves her; Jessie is cruel and Maurice adores and that's the story.
It's absorbing, it's lovely and it's complete with characters who live and have lived.

And THAT'S why " Venus" is unmissable.

Thursday, January 25, 2007

"Absolutely Entranced"

I HATE ironing, but there ARE compensations.
Monday's compensation was watching The Afternoon Play on BBC TV while ironing.. ( Doesn't Life Get Exciting??)
And after five shirts, the ironing board stood alone and unaccompanied...

Afternoon Plays also appeared on Tues, Wed, Thurs, Fri (that's IF you switched on TV and IF you felt inclined to recline on sofa with one cat, several chocolates, whatever took your fancy...)
I so loved Monday's offering that I reclined again on Tuesday ( plus TWO cats, actually and the ironing still in its basket) ) but other stuff (teaching, shopping, a friend) happened other days so that was the end of The Afternoon Play for me... but catching 2/5, I think, was pretty good going.
Monday's play," Johnny Shakespeare" starred Greta Scaachi and James Cartwright. Scaachi played beautiful neglected talented middleaged academic Diane ( phew, that was an effort..) and Cartwright played beautiful popular talented teenaged out-of-work Johnny. Johnny gate-crashed Diane's drama class; Diane spotted his potential ( in more ways than one) and well, guess the rest. ..
And although this was sugary silly in places, I was entranced by this; absolutely entranced at two thirty on a Monday afternoon.The music was good, the directing fine and the supporting cast worthy of any production anywhere.
Scaachi (soon-to-be-past-it beauty, living in book-lined middleclass comfort) and Cartwright, ( illiterate teenage stud, living with alki gran in seedy council house) were superb together. There was no wild passion, just shared humour, a touching of fingers, glances lasting seconds longer than necessary...but we ( cats and me) knew the passion COULD have been wild and that it WOULD have been in another time, another place. And we were glad, we were very glad...

Monday, January 22, 2007

"Mistress Of All She Surveys..."

I recently concluded that some women regularly re-invent themselves. They re-invent their image, outlook, beliefs, interests and allegiances. Some women re-invent themselves in A Big Way; others are happy with lesser re-inventions. We all know women of this ilk; I do . And I admire them. It's healthy, it's spirited and we do it ourselves.

But on to other things. Sunday was bright skyed, icy. We decided to walk near Parkgate on the Wirral peninsula.
By lunchtime, we'd walked the length of the old seafront, along the marshes, across fields, finally joining part of the Wirral Way on our return for home.
Parkgate's story has long intrigued me. Often since childhood, I've stared at her Promenade houses, wondered who lived there long ago. I've gazed across her marshes to Wales, imagined boats setting sail for Ireland in other centuries, when the water lapped her seawall and sailors gathered at her quay.
And I've remembered my parent's tales of bathing off the seawall, of sands which glistened where marsh lies now. And somewhere, in a tiny corner of my memory, I recall being carried as a baby, onto the last tiny strip of sand before the marsh won its victory, before the water came up no more. ( See the marsh stretching below the seawall to the left of my photo)
And yes, I've enjoyed Parkgate's present ( particularly her icecream ). And I've enjoyed those countless echoes of her past. This past included Lady Emma Hamilton, mistress of Lord Nelson, born in nearby Ness. It also included Sir Wilfred Grenfell, writer and medical missionary, born in 1865 and the son of Rev Grenfell, who established Parkgate's well known Mostyn House School.
Once Parkgate was a hectic seaport; it's hard to imagine her as main embarkation point for Ireland. Elegant and influential people sailed from her quay; these included the composer, Handel, and also John Wesley, the Methodist founder. And until the beginning of the nineteenth century, Parkgate prospered. In 1811 however, her last boat landed its last passengers. This was for several reasons: Holyhead on Anglesey had taken much of Parkgate's trade and travel through North Wales had improved markedly. Also the Dee had silted up; its shallow waters made navigation a serious problem.
But in this other time, other age, Parkgate re-invented herself. In the early nineteenth century, she painted on a glamorous new face; this appealed to many. There were sands to parade on, to sunbathe on; the water, although shallow, was still accessible for bathing. And there was a long promenade where people could stroll, inns for eating and drinking. Parkgate was a fashionable place and again she flourished...
Then the railways came. People now had other places to go. The visitors declined; Parkgate was left to locals who enjoyed the fresh air, the Welsh Hills across the estuary. But Parkgate changed her tune again.
In the 1930's, open air swimming baths were built at the end of the promenade; they were a stunning success. " The Cheshire Set" ( whoever "they" be ) swam there and posed there. So did young Wirralians, rich young Liverpudlans and people from rapidly developing Ellesmere Port.
But now the stylish folk and the baths are long gone. Their attraction declined eventually; for years, they stood derelict behind the Boathouse Inn. As a teenager, I peered through the fences and saw a rotting divingboard, saw the huge empty pool littered with rubbish.... and thought I heard voices of bathers who left long ago.
BUT on Sunday, we parked our car where the baths once stood. On our return , more walkers were arriving; families with labradors and well-wrapped up grannies, wiry young couples wrapped up in themselves.
NOW Parkgate is a walkers delight; like a feisty woman, she's re-invented herself yet again...

Sunday, January 21, 2007

"Musical Statues"

Yesterday I met an old friend for breakfast. This was tea with cinnamon toast in a wine bar.
The painting on the left is not us. It's called "Girl Talk" by Elya de Chino. It's not us, as I say, but yesterday we DID talk..
My friend, MR, and I meet rarely, but we go back a long way; all the way back to our first year at a prim ( in those days) girls school overlooking the City Walls. Then, we pincurled our hair, we put Vaseline on our eyebrows, we ate jelly cubes to help our nails grow; each evening, we rolled our white pleated skirts up into nylon stockings to keep them immaculate. We covered our textbooks with brown paper and we decorated them with felttip psychedelic flowers. AND we marked boys we knew out of 10 and nobody scored better than 8..
We giggled in science and we giggled in Latin. We giggled particularly in Scripture. Once, I giggled under the floorboards in the Hall during Assembly, with a sock stuck in my mouth to shut me up and later the teachers wondered why my hair was dripping with cobwebs and my tunic ( the posh word for a gym slip..!) was torn ..
MR says that on my thirteenth birthday, I stood in our classroom and told her that Life Was Wonderful and that Anything Was Possible. I suppose it actually was. In hindsight, bless it, it was..
MR still has notes we wrote to each other during lessons....and once every twenty years, I am allowed to re-read them...
Old friends are precious. I'm in contact with several women who " go back" several decades ( and several men too) We have different lives, styles, dreams, interests and yet the friendships are special because through them, we glimpse again our beginnings. We glance at where we started and sometimes the thrills of our growing up can be as vivid as ever...
Below is the start of a story I wrote last year. It's told in first person by a girl remembering her friend who "disappeared".
The story is called " Musical Statues".
Here is the beginning:

"This is what I remember. Piano music in a dusty school Hall. Mrs Platt, finger on lips, sitting upright at her piano. Mrs Platt had wisps of hair on her chin. Children yelled in the playground. A dog barked in the street. And Cecelia Snowball stood alone, arms above her head, hands curving together. Cecelia, a beauty; a loner.
Mrs Platt sat at her piano. Mrs Platt, who had lips like a Rosebud doll. I remember all this; the swirling music, Mrs Platt’s chords and the heat of late June.
We are ten years old. Ten years old, when Hungarians rose against Russians, Khrushchev lashed at Stalin, Elvis sang “Blue Suede shoes”, Monroe wed Miller. And a film star called Grace married a prince in Monte Carlo.

“Cecelia’s a perfect statue!” Mrs Platt groans with delight. Mrs Platt swipes tears from her eyes. We roll our eyes. We are twenty-two quivering statues. We stand on one leg. We curl on the floor. We hold our arms high in the air. Dan Fisher farts on purpose. Donna Morris flicks bits from her ears. Jenny Woods, who’s thin and clever and smells of cats, times the length of our stillness. She squints at her watch because she needs glasses. She sways from side to side. She’s a pipe cleaner taut on a tightrope. Someone hiccups then burps then farts. There is a round of applause in our eyes.
Mrs Platt smiles. This is rare; this is a phenomenon.
“Children ” She places her hands together: “Look at Cecelia. Why can’t you all be perfection? Why can’t you all be angels?”
And there’s silence you can hear; it’s loud as gunshots, ricocheting the length of the Hall. My ears buzz. The air is noisy with silence.
And then the long afternoon wraps itself round me, twines itself round me, while Cecelia Snowball, tall and straight, impossibly still, stands alone in the centre, while the rest of us wobble and totter, giggle and fall.

And then the music plays again. Honkity tonk. Plonkity plonk. The music from the piano clonks around the Hall, glitters like tinsel at Christmas. We move like fairies or cabbages or felines or drunks, depending on our build, our inclination.
“ Cecelia has bearing!” Mrs Platt’s voice is bright as lemons. “ Cecelia’s going places!”
“ To the flipping moon, I hope!” Dan Fisher grunts and Cecelia smiles a shy furtive smile. She has olive skin and blue eyes and her legs are long. She smells of garlic and fags and her clothes come from Oxfam and there are violet shadows beneath her eyes. She wears a pink striped jacket and she’s the most beautiful person I’ve ever seen.
All this I remember; Mrs Platt watching Cecelia, watching her grace, her dark exotic skin, her face. And I remember circling round, thinking about family stuff, my mum, my dad, my secrets...

Mrs Platt leans over the piano. Her hands spread across her keyboard; her legs spread wide beneath it. The music ripples and surges and splashes and Mrs Platt sways to the music and we giggle as we move and we whisper as we move and Benny Speakman pinches Julie Warburton and Simon Hodgkiss makes her cry. We’re moving round in a circle on the School Hall floor. Despite the day, my arse is cold in thin PE shorts and my legs have goose bumps and I want to go home and I wish my shorts were woollen ones.
Then Mrs Platt plays a dozen scales in quick succession. Notes scrape the floor, shimmy to the ceiling. Our movements are slow, we stop, and we start. We move as though crocodiles lurk in water beneath our feet, as though our thighs are encased in mud. Mrs Platt trills along with each triumphant note. Her breasts shiver beneath her flowery dress and Benny Speakman who’s five foot six already, whose voice croaks already, says “Jees!” and waggles his hips as the music soars. Benny Speakman gawps at Mrs Platt; his mouth hangs wide as though he’s catching music on its route to the ceiling. And Cecelia Snowball glides along, floats along, and drifts along while Mrs Platt plays along.

We wait for the notes to die. Music fills my head. Mrs Platt wears a fawn coloured cardigan over her flowery dress. The cardigan is crumpled and worn and pushed to her elbows. Her elbows are raw and scaly. The cardigan is fawn; our dog is fawn and today I am wondering if Bambi the fawn was actually fawn as well as a fawn. My mind goes round in circles as we move.
“ Be stealthy!” Mrs Platt shouts, “Creep, children! Celia! She’s stealth to perfection!”
I remember these earliest things. Cecelia, moving with stories in her mind; Cecelia, who was stealth to perfection...

Mrs Platt’s arms are pink and blotchy like hams at Christmas. I stare when I pass the piano. Her bracelet clatters with charms when she strikes a chord. Charms flash; ther's a bear holding honey, a star, and a clattering heart. The heart clinks against the keys. It glitters. I wonder if Mrs Platt’s real heart’s been broken. I wonder if mine will be broken. I wonder if Cecelia’s heart will be broken. I wonder if real hearts glitter when they are loved. I wonder if Mrs Platt has a tarnished heart.

Cecelia floats by as if in a dream. Mrs Platt’s brow is damp and her face sparkles with sweat. She lifts her hands deftly off the keyboard. Her hands are swans, curving feathers. Her wrists are narrow; they twirl with the music but her eyes are dull, her eyes are doll’s eyes.
And we’ll be statues but now we move to music. We prowl through forests, we stroll in cities; we are knights, fairies and elephants. Sometimes Mrs Platt stops playing, picks her fag from the ashtray on top of the piano, draws on it long and hard. Her pale eyes are slits in a cherubim face. Her cheeks are the colour of pink blancmange; they're smooth and flawless and I know they’d feel like satin cushions.

And we stand, while Mrs Platt sucks on her fag. And Jenny smirks at Donna and Benny pinches Julie and Simon makes her cry and Dan farts and I laugh and Cecelia Snowball bends, makes a perfect arabesque, so that Mrs Platt flusters and ash flutters on the piano keys and the fawn cardigan stretches tight round her ample breasts.

Those are things I remember. And I wallow in hindsight and drown with my biscuit in coffee, dunking it dunking it dunking it until my cup is full of soggy crumbs and the coffee’s soaked up into the crumbs and I answer my mobile and my voice becomes Mrs Platt’s voice and it’s that voice as bright as lemons.
And in some other time, the music stops and Cecelia Snowball in a dusty school hall makes her perfect arabesque. "
A week later, Mrs Platt at the piano for Morning Assembly announced that Cecelia had left. She was breathless and flushed.
“ So that’s that” she said, bursting into a rousing chorus of “ All things bright and beautiful” which Benny Speakman yelled and Jenny Woods, still smelling of cats, timed the singing of the hymn with her new Micky Mouse watch…

Thursday, January 18, 2007

"Imagine Their Lives...."

In MY kitchen ( see yesterday's post!) we have this huge framed print of Vincent Van Gogh's " The Night Cafe". It's a vital and lively painting; it provides us with endless gawpings and wild imaginings. All the characters bare scrutiny; their stories should be told!

We bought the print after a visit to Arles, in the south of France, where Van Gogh painted it. We sat outside the cafe (where he'd painted another famous scene) and we bought drinks in the Night Cafe itself.
The painting is at Yale University, USA.

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

"Weeping For Julie"

This is Canaletto's painting of Venice, showing the Piazzetta San Marco. It's relevant to the enclosed story, which I wrote on a rainy day last year. The boy in my story lived with this painting for years; a print of it hung over his sideboard in his terraced home in a small northern town. The boy imbibed the moods of the painting, the muted colours of Venice .
The story is set in the early 60's. It's called:" Weeping For Julie"

"A boy runs out of woods. He hurls a packet of Woodbines high in the air. His fists clench. His heart hammers. The rain falls, fierce as his anger. And then he remembers the taste of her smile.

“ Sod it,” His shriek is an animal bellow. His feet splatter in puddles. The puddles are endless pools along the pavement; they stretch before him lagoon-like. He thinks of the picture of Venice over the sideboard at home, its lagoons. He’s gazed at that picture for years, as he’s clustered round the table with his silent family, savouring his chips, or watching custard drip slowly from the spout of a jug.

His mind whirls. He thinks of those gondoliers, their grey Venetian days, and the rain, just like today. He’s often imagined the dampness, the smell of all those centuries. Then he thinks of the scent of the girl, her sweetness, of Tizer and chocolate and peppermint. He pictures the narrowness of her hips in grey flannel shorts as she lay in the wood, the raindrops clinging like diamonds to grass; he pictures them glittering. He remembers the coolness of her skin.
And then he sees his mother’s face; he sees how her eyes will certainly be. And there’s the rain and his tears and he’s running, he’s running…

The boy reaches home. The rain flutters against his eyes. He crosses the yard beneath clothes on the line. They cluster in his face like birds. The clothes flap in the breeze, shrivel in the rain.

The backdoor is open; the boy’s mother stands ironing in the scullery. There’s moistness in the air; sadness lingers with rain. The boy drags off his jacket, runs his fingers under the tap in the sink, scrubs each finger, holds each finger beneath flowing water. He curses, rubs the fat slab of soap hard into his skin. His mother turns and frowns, shakes out the shirt she’s pressing.
“ Hush” she whispers.
She wears a flowered overall and her hair is pinned with a dozen clips. She is flushed, powder less; her lips are slashed with crimson. The boy sees smudges of lipstick on her cheeks; he sees buttons loosened in her overall. He smells lilies in her perfume, roses. He guesses her hair is soft with kisses. He guesses she feels still the stroke of those fingers. The boy knows the man has been.

The mother pauses in her ironing; her eyes beg for secrecy. They are blue eyes; the colour of cornflowers and often the boy has thought them the loveliest eyes in the world. She grabs his arm as he passes; he feels the grasp of her fingers, winces at her passion.
“ Hush,” she whispers, “ I need your father but I need them both”
The boy shrugs her hand away. He sees the Venetian lagoon stretching into greyness above the sideboard. He hears rain splashing in the yard outside.

In the hallway his father’s bike leans against the coat stand. He kicks it violently. The pedals spin, the mudguards shake. He sees his own reflection in the coat stand mirror. He imagines behind him the face of the girl, her perfect mouth; he sees her eyes in the baby soft face.

The boy runs up stairs. They are steep and narrow. There is dust on the staircase. In his room, he falls on his bed among magazines, jumpers and his window swings wide and the panes shiver and his curtains twist together in the rain. And clouds heavy as porpoises move across sky and the beat of the rain is ceaseless.

And Alan weeps for Julie, remembers her cornflower blue eyes."

Remembering Fenella And A Snow White Owl"

Many stories ( and poems) grow in the writer's mind from one particular image. In Monday's post, I mentioned how an owl flew against our windscreen as one night, we past Tintern Abbey ( see water colour painting, above ) *** . This was a memorable sight. And then several years after, I wrote the enclosed story. It developed from that one marvellous image: the snowy white owl, passing us by on its flight to the abbey at midnight..
Here is the story.
It's called:" Remembering Fenella and a snow white owl."

I’m dozing in the passenger seat in the dark. The motion of the car, the warmth inside it, lulls me to sleep. David drives with avid concentration; our children sleep in the back, cuddled in pyjamas, dreaming of holidays we’re approaching.
At midnight, the road slithers through the Wye Valley, dark and silent. Tall black trees loom, the giants of childhood gone in seconds, their branches outstretched to clutch the darkness. A car speeds past, hurtles on into the void beyond, and the radio plays low, the tinkle of a jazz piano.
And then as we pass the ruins of Tintern Abbey, a white owl hoots and swoops low across the moon, and I’m wide awake and I'm remembering.

In our navy gabardines we came, me, Pamela, Lesley and Fenella; into the doom of the churchyard at midnight, holding our breath and clutching each other’s hands.
Fenella was first, walking with the grace of a dancer between tall gravestones, her thick gold hair glinting in the eerie light; Fenella, always confident, always serene. Lesley was beside her; little, dark, secretive Lesley. I scuttled behind with lumpy Pamela, sucking sweets and sneezing. We were four school friends, creeping in the shadows of the night-time churchyard, as our feet squelched on wet grass, as our eyes stayed ever watchful.
“Come on!” hissed Fenella, snapping us into action. “We’re here for a reason, and we can’t muck about. We’ve got ten minutes, then you go back”.
“Let’s look at graves first,” said Pamela, “I like to see who I'm with”. Pamela, always logical.
So we huddled together, peered at epitaphs in the moonlight. We examined the lives and deaths of families. We read Sarah West’s gravestone, saw she was buried at seventeen with baby, at the beginning of another century. We gripped hands, suddenly chilled. At John Patterson's grave, we saw he was killed at nineteen in the Great War, but remembered years later on his parents’ tombstone. We’d read Wilfred Owen in English, but it never seemed real....

Fenella was impatient: “Come on” she snarled, “ You know what to do”.
As usual, we accepted her bossiness, although Pamela grumpily kicked pebbles, which skidded across the path.
“Do you really think it’ll work?” Lesley whispered, “Really, truly, Fenella?”
“It’s daft,” snorted Pamela, “I’d rather be in bed. I’m freezing and I’ve got a sore throat. It's mad and we’ll be expelled if they find out. It’s OK for you, Fenella Carter, you won’t get caught. You're invincible!"
She spat her words into the midnight air.

Lesley, Pamela and I were boarders at a rather second rate boarding school; we were supposedly in our dormitory asleep. Fenella, a daygirl, lived at home nearby. Her parents were oblivious to their daughter’s activities.
“Shut up, Pamela. Just eat more sweets,” Fenella commanded, “Get to the lichgate and start there. Remember; we keep walking and no talking. Then we wait and see. We wait and see what happens....”
So we crept across the churchyard to the gate. Halfway across, I halted by a high grey marble slab; someone had left a posy of crimson roses. I touched the tight, furled petals, wondering who left them, who they were for. I stared at the epitaph beneath a woman’s name and read: “Remember me when I am gone, gone far away into the silent land.” And I shivered, lingered over Christina Rossetti’s words, traced my cold fingers over the letters, until Fenella urged me to hurry. Then I slid away to the edge of the churchyard, and gazed over heavy rhododendron bushes at frosty fields beyond, stretching icily white into bleakness of night. And ever since, I’ve pictured such fields as the haunting silent land of that poem.

AND THEN we did what we set out to do. Twelve times on that cold night, we staggered round the churchyard in silence, trembling in ghostly silver-dark. After each circuit, Fenella snapped a berry from a holly tree near the lichgate, left it in a long-stemmed wineglass beneath the tree. (She’d smuggled this glass from her parent’s sideboard.)
Twelve times, we circled the churchyard. Then we knew we must wait. Pamela choked with fear; little engulfing sobs shaking her plump body. And graceful Fenella stood beneath the holly tree, an ethereal figure in the moonlight, bearing the wineglass like a chalice at an altar.
And once a car swept past in the lane beside the churchyard. Somewhere in the woods an animal shrieked. Huddling together, we willed night to open up, reveal its secret, reveal what we were desperate to see. Show what we were here for.
A fleeting breeze shifted leaves in the trees overhead. They swirled, quivered round our ankles. Somewhere distant, an iron gate clattered, slammed shut. All the clichés of the night were all rolled into approximately five minutes.
And then an owl hooted and a snow-white owl fluttered ghost-like across tombstones....

BUT at last, the time had come. Fenella swirled a dozen berries in her wineglass. Now we believed we'd see the faces of the men we would marry. An old superstition said so. It said that if we walked twelve times round the churchyard at midnight, we'd see these longed-for faces. It was, according to Fenella, even more likely to happen, should a snowy white owl pass by.
But Fenella was lurching us back to reality. Something, strangely, had changed in her attitude.
“Blast it! Go back to school!” she insisted, suddenly bored. “This is codswallop. Nothing’s going to happen now”. She tugged a comb through her hair and I wondered why; the wind was worsening, there was no one to see us, but she was determined we left her….
“Go on,they'll notice you're not at school. I could elope and my parents wouldn't notice. ”
Fenella was actually rueful. We glanced at each other, suddenly pitying her. So we left, did as required, and headed back across the churchyard.
Halfway across, I turned; Fenella sat on the wrought iron bench. Despite the breeze, she smoked a Woodbine, cupped her handsround it, film star fashion; in the moonlight, she looked like Marilyn Monroe.
But obediently, we stumbled off up the path. And as we clicked open the gate to the lane, we heard heavy-booted footsteps running up the path at the other side of the churchyard, and seconds later, Fenella’s bubbly laughter....

Safe in school, we climbed into bed in the dormitory.
Lesley whispered: “Tony’s probably with her. Fenella's Gorgeous Tony"
We knew about Tony. Some days we heard nothing but Tony.
Pamela continued: " He’ll be holding her hand in the churchyard, gazing into her eyes with passion”.
Pamela rolled over in bed: “And the rest” she groaned, and I heard the rustle of sweet papers in the dark.

Next morning, we trouped into Assembly. Miss Ella Tibbett, our esteemed Headmistress, stood on the platform, wearing polished brogues, tweed skirt, and kindly pastoral smile fixed on her face. Hers was a handsome face, the kind Whistler may have painted.
Once seated on the floor in Assembly, we always listened to music for a while, supposedly to collect our thoughts, but actually to allow latecomers to straggle in. Girls whispered and giggled; teachers looked bored, examined their nails, and glared at girls they disliked.
Just as the door monitor closed the door because Assembly was starting, Fenella sashayed in, to the triumphant strains of “The Arrival of the Queen of Sheba”. The music might have been chosen for her. With arms folded across chest, emphasising swaying hips, she pouted like a young Bardot, moved with the grace of Shrimpton. And the older teachers glowered, the younger ones smiled, apart from Miss Bright in navy serge trouser suit, who openly drooled.

“Look at Fenella, the tart” sizzled Ingrid Sulaiman; her stage whisper hissed around the entire Fifth Form. Ingrid, the sole contender for Fenella’s title (The School Beauty), had a mysterious Indian father with haunted eyes and a beautiful Swedish mother. Ingrid was a mix of them both.
And so we gawped from our place in the line. Fenella lowered herself onto the floor, crossing elegant legs, swinging glossy hair. She ignored Ingrid, acknowledged us (her rapt audience) with an imperious nod. The music ended, the whole school stood up, and oh, HOW we wished we were gorgeous.
Then Pamela burped, brought us back to a giggling guffawing reality and we sang “All things bright and beautiful” with the gusto of victorious rugby players on a homebound football coach.

Fenella’s Gorgeous Tony was an older man. He was an apprentice plumber aged twenty,who lived with his divorced mother in a council house near the church. Fenella was in love with him. They drove to the pub on the coast road in his battered Sunbeam Rapier; Fenella got tipsy on gin and orange. She piled her hair up and pouted her lips and middle-aged men propped on the bar said she was the spit of Brigitte Bardot.
Tony looked Italian but his eyebrows met in the middle. We warned Fenella that this was a bad omen. However, he sang like Elvis and had mates in jail, so our words fell on Fenella’s deaf ears. They met in a basement cafe in town a few miles away, where Tony hung out with his greasy mates, thumbing through magazines, supping coffees and leering at girls’ legs swinging past in the street above.
Once, Tony had sped past me on his bike, almost knocking me flying as I stepped off the kerb, but his wide grin floored me quicker than any bike. He cycled off, waving , and I stared at his thin waist in his denim jeans. And for the first time in my life, I had caught my breath while looking at somebody else. ..

After Assembly, Ingrid Sulaiman glowered in the school library.
“Get here quick” she hissed across the table where we were planning essays. She’d been scribbling, crossing things out, screwing up paper. I left Emma Woodhouse dallying with Darcy and crossed to the end of the table.
“Look at this!” Ingrid glinted, passing me a piece of paper bearing a message printed in purple capitals. The message was cruel, the message would hurt. I read it and couldn’t believe my eyes.
Ingrid laughed: "What do you think then? This’ll put Jezebel in her place once and for all. Come on, sign it.”
So I thought for a second, then wrote “C. Black” and Ingrid scrawled “D. Springfield” and then she shot out of the library to deliver her missive.
AND would you believe?
From that day on, we never saw Fenella again.

But over the years, my guilt was bright, bright and fertile like the nasturtiums flowering all over my rockery. It burned in my throat when I saw a girl with light hair running across a street or a woman turning heads as she came into a room. Over the years, it shook a fist at me and sometimes, it made me catch my breath.
But I had a letter from Pamela last week. She’s a History teacher in East London, lives with a trumpet player, and breeds dachshunds. There was a PS at the end of her letter.
“Guess who I met in Oxford Street?" scrawled Pamela " Fenella. She’s still blonde, she's still stunning. And guess what? She knew absolutely nothing about the letter you sent her, that stupid letter you and Ingrid wrote.That was obvious. She left school so fast, so suddenly because her parents had split up. She had to go to a school near her Granny. She said she was too choked to write to us, and time went on, so she never did.... She especially asked how you were. She said she always thought you were the nicest friend she ever had.”

The ruins of Tintern fade into the dark behind us.

Monday, January 15, 2007

"Walking In Wales On A Wild And Wonderful Day"

Yesterday morning we went walking in the Clwydian Hills. They are within swift and easy reach of Chester; we don't visit them often enough.
It's a New Year Resolution that we walk regularly, so Watch This Space*** ( See end of this post)
Yesterday was cold, thanks to a bitter Celtic wind, but sun shone, sky was blue and once we'd decided to forego the higher path across the hills (where perilous gales blew and my hat was almost lost) we set off in high spirits.
In 1985, the Clwydian Hills were designated an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty along with four other parts of Wales. Running for about 20 miles, they rise between the Vale of Clwyd to the west and the Dee Estuary in the east.On the summits Iron Age Hillforts were built. It's an area of diverse landscape; there are hills, moorlands, forests and plains. There are pleasant villages, there are superb uplifting views.
The Offa's Dyke National Trail ( which runs from Chepstow to Prestatyn) folllows almost the whole length of the Hills. The Dyke, built by Offa, the powerful King of Mercia ( he died in 796) was built to mark the border between England and Wales.
This border country is magic to me; it dates back to journeys to Cornwall from Cheshire. In early summer mornings or glimmery summer evenings, we'd pass those border landmarks;we'd drive through towns with castles, quiet empty streets, where people slept in houses with tightly drawn curtains or we'd see daylight creep in as we travelled through lush valleys and serene woodlands where the sunlight danced between pine trees. We'd watch the sky change, we'd see the passage of light as the day or the night moved on. Once, with our children travelling to a cottage near Bodmin, we past Tintern Abbey at midnight; a snowy white owl flew past the windscreen and we watched as it glided towards the abbey..
One of my favourite novels is Bruce Chatwin's " On the Black Hill".
It's set in the border country, towards Hereford. Describing the house where the main characters live, Chatwin writes: " One of the windows looked out over the green fields of England: the other looked back into Wales, past a dump of larches, at the Black Hill."
And the book begins:" For forty-two years, Lewis and Benjamin Jones slept side by side, in their parent's bed, at their farm which was known as 'The Vision' "
Chatwin tells their story in language which is moving, beautiful and frequently funny...
***Years ago, I decided never to divulge New Year Resolutions; by February( and THAT'S good going) they've shrivelled to nothing, so forgive me if mine doesn't last long.
Recently I discovered an ancient diary containing my Resolutions at age 14:
"Do my History.
Be nice to The Aunts ( Wasn't I always?? I wonder if Philippa reads this?!)
Have Long Hair.
Keep Room Spotless And Tidy, e.g. put my tops on my bottles.( This refers to makeup, I hasten to add. In these Olden Days, 14 year olds drank coke and thought themselves lucky. And makeup was only allowed on Saturdays. )
Groom Dog.
Eat Jelly Cubes.
Give Up Seat On My Bus for The Elderly.
Give up Riding. ( The horse usually bolted )
Get off with SS. ( This meant: Stand under Abbey Gateway with SS after school. Or drink Espresso with SS in the El Vista Coffee Bar, Watergate St, on a Saturday afternoon. But WHO was SS?)
Eat Ryvita...."
The List Goes On.....

Friday, January 12, 2007

"A Letter Of Love" ( Read previous post re Dietrich first! )

This second person, Robert Falcon Scott, was born in 1868 and died in freezing ice and blizzards in 1912. In 1901, he led the National Arctic Expedition for the Royal Geographical Society; he travelled further south than anyone before him.

In later years, Scott led an expedition to both the South Pole and ultimately to his death. His body, along with those of some of his companions, still lies beneath a cairn of ice. It is guarded by a cross of skis.
Recently Scott's last letter to his beloved wife has been published for the first time. His thoughts and feelings are revealed as he gradually realises that he will perish in the Antarctic: "We are in a very tight corner and I have doubts of pulling through"and " It is not easy to write because of the cold; 70 degrees below zero, and nothing but the shelter of our tent". Scott's thoughts are with his family, particularly his wife ( who he movingly addresses as " my widow") and his three year old son, Peter: " You know I have loved you, you know my thoughts must have constantly dwelt on you.."
Scott's words are tragic yet beautiful; it is impossible to imagine his agony but the letter, with both its strength and its gentleness, is memorable.
This letter, along with many others, has been presented by Scott's family to Cambridge University. They will be viewed at the Scott Polar Research Institute from January 17th; this will be the 95th Anniversary of Scott arriving at the South Pole. The letter in its entirety can be read on line at timesonline.co.uk/britain
It is admirable that at last the British public can share something so special that has been unavailable for so long.

"Dietrich Gets Lucky."

Two very different deceased people ( world famous for very different reasons) were in the News this week.
But they were news worthy for vaguely similar reasons.
One person had mislaid her property which miraculously (after many decades) came suddenly to light.
The other person had property kept hidden for decades after his death; it was deemed recently that the time had come to share it. This was something of a far greater historical importance.
First, in a lighter vein. In 1934 Marlene Dietrich ( platinum actress) came to Blackpool from Hollywood. In 1930, she'd warbled " Falling In Love Again" in the celebrated film "Blue Angel", thus captivating every man in Blackpool ( and according to my father and uncles, every man in Britain too.)

In 1934, Blackpool was at the height of its fame as a Pleasure Resort. And Blackpool was enchanted by husky-voiced Dietrich. In her early 30's, her films, her beauty and her wonderful lifestyle, were legendary. Her list of lovers eventually became legendary too; it included Yul Brynner, Frank Sinatra and possibly even JFK.
But Dietrich ( down to earth, despite all this) liked Blackpool. She loved its vigour, the sense of fun it generated. She also loved rollercoaster rides and Blackpool's rollercoaster rides in 1931 were just TOO tempting; Dietrich had to indulge. Amid shrieks and laughter she zoomed up, she zoomed down. At the end of the ride beside the sparkling lake, she was smiling, breathless, but also earringless. One earringless, anyway. She returned to Hollywood with a lone gold and diamond earring. Despite searches, the other had gone for ever.
HOWEVER recently the lake was drained and seventy three years later, Dietrich's precious earring turned up. Unfortunately she had died in Paris fourteen years previously, aged ninety two . However the folk at Blackpool hope to keep the earring on display for their public's enjoyment.
It will be a glittering memory of a glittering lady.
More of the second person later. ( see posting above) In contrast, he was a figure of immense historical significance. As if you (who read the News) haven't guessed.......

Tuesday, January 09, 2007

"Learning To Read With The Flopsy Bunnies"

Today I saw " Miss Potter", the new film directed by Chris Noonan, starring Renee Zellweger as the writer Beatrix Potter. Her co-star is Euan McGregor as her sweet shy publisher, Norman Warne, who eventually becomes her fiancee. It's an intriguing film, which paints a haunting picture of a private ( but rather strong) woman. The main characters: Barbara Flynn as Beatrix's snobbish mother ( "Tradespeople, Beatrix! They bring DUST in the house!") and Bill Patterson, with his gentle Scots accent and enormous sideburns, are superb, as are the settings of 1903 London and the stunning Lake District. This film may well have embroidered facts and added some too, but as a Potter fan for several decades, I found it sheer delight.

SOPORIFIC. That's quite a word for a four year old. But I learned it alright. Beatrix Potter taught me that word in her "Tale Of The Flopsy Bunnies" and I never forgot it.

That word intrigued me. I lay in bed in the dark saying "soporificsoporificsoporific" , until I really was SO soporific that I fell happily asleep.

And I dreamed about sleepy rabbits, who wore waistcoats, trousers and even clogs ( Benjamin Bunny, no less) , who talked like human beings, who gorged on too much lettuce. And I dreamed of a duck called Jemima, who wore a poke bonnet, of Mrs Tabitha Twitchett, the tabby cat who expected friends to tea, of rabbits called Flopsy, Mopsy, Cottontail and Peter. And I shivered in my sleep as images of scary Mr Macgreggor (who had a garden of flowerpots, frames and tubs) flashed across my dreams. Potter's world was magic; it had red cotton pocket handkerchiefs, camomile tea, a scarecrow wearing a tam-o-shanter; it had Pigling Bland and Jeremy Fisher and Moppet and Mittens, kittens dressed in clean pinafores and tuckers . It had rabbits who supped bread and milk and blackberries at bedtime; it had a toad called Mr Jackson, who drank acorn cupfuls of honeydew...

And there were new words to learn in her stories and bright images to stare at in her pictures. And most of all, Potter's world opened my four year old's eyes to stories and drawings, characters and plots..

My father read to us regularly. We sat on deckchairs beside the lilac trees, we lolled on the comfy brown leather sofa by French windows overlooking the snowball tree. I remember bedtimes snuggled beneath a slippery pink satin eiderdown, clutching Edwina, Wonky and the handsome Tumpkins ( teddies, of course.)
And we listened to Potter over and over. We loved her elegant words which we learned by heart , we enjoyed her detailed delicate paintings which remain in my minds-eye for ever. And all the while, my father's gentle tones soothed us into our sleep.

Two decades later, I read them again. In fact, I was so keen to get back to Potter that I bought my eldest son " Benjamin Bunny" on his first birthday. And NOW I wouldn't be surprised if next time I'm shopping, I just might pop into a bookshop and buy my grandson " The Flopsy Bunnies" or possibly " Jemima Puddleduck" ...

Sunday, January 07, 2007

Shades Of Green In The Cheshire Plain..

I've been posting a surfeit of snowy pictures on my blog since Christmas Eve. However, it's under false pretences; my world is far from snowy at present. It isn't particularly icy either; it's actually been rather warm for January.
Today, on the year's first Sunday, there are many shades of green to be seen on the Cheshire Plain. There's not a snow plough in sight, not a single frozen pond and certainly no footprints meandering across pure white fields; Cheshire is undoubtedly a green and pleasant land.
Perhaps I'm tempting providence and later this winter, we'll have snowstorms and snowdrifts and icicles really will hang from the garden wall, but there's certainly no sign at present.

This weekend we stayed with friends who live in a village near the Sandstone Trail. This is a 32 mile walking route; it takes its name from the sandstone ridge dividing the lowland plains of East Cheshire from the river Dee basin in the west.
The photograph above was taken yesterday from Larkton Hill ( by my husband, I hasten to add. I was lazing in my friend's kitchen, supping tea and nattering...) The hill overlooks the wonderful light and space of the Cheshire Plain. On the top of Larkton Hill are the remains of Maiden Castle; this was an iron-age fort dating back to the 1st Century B.C. The name, according to JMcNeil Dodgson's book:" The Place Names of Cheshire", is derived fom "Maegden" ( the Old English for "virgin" or " untaken" , as in "untaken fort" )
The views from Larkton Hill, believe me, will always lift the spirit, with or without a hipflask...

Friday, January 05, 2007

"Listening To Mother"

This is a painting by Camille Pissarro. It's called " Landscape with snow". Pissarro is my favourite Impressionist painter. The painting makes me shiver with cold. And I shiver too at the sheer beauty of winter, at its treachery.

Here is a story for January. I wrote it two Januarys ago. It's called " Listening with Mother." There are different sides to snow and ice. Their beauty can terrify. Here is the story:

Once our mother saw a girl fall through ice on a pond. Our mother saw the girl's hand, just one hand pointing out of the water, fingers up to the sky.
"Ice" says our mother " ruins lives. It ruined Jennifer Ann Henshaw's in 1963"
So our pond's out of bounds. When it's frozen, my brother and I stare at it, stand close together, remember our mother's story. We remember the hand in the fairisle glove ( whatever fairisle might be). We picture the hand, sinking fast. And we see fingers pointing up to the sky.

It happened years ago. My mother says she screamed so that her shouts rocketed to the sky and grownups appeared, shrieking and crying and running fast. And my little-girl mother stood on the snow in her red bobble hat, like a figure on a Christmas cake, and Jennifer Ann's father, Harold Henshaw, a fat man in a fawn waistcoat, with trouser pockets jingling with coins and spectacles and other manly things, leapt into the ice as though it were the swimming pool at Llandudno. And the ice cracked like an Easter egg breaking up, slithering slowly aside, grey and crumbling and ghastly, revealing the darkest of water, which gurgled and sighed deep mournful sighs. And then all was still.

Jennifer Ann's mother, a frilly woman called Aileen, in duck egg blue twinset and well polished court shoes, ran across the snow dragging a ladder.
" She was a little woman with a large ladder" says our mother, but Aileen found strength from somewhere and with two helpful neighbours, she dragged the ladder so that it looked like a musical stave and the ice was a sheet of music and the people were crotchets and quavers dancing in staccato-like fashion on the snow. And the snow was greying now, muddied with the footprints of frenzied Wellingtons, with the ghostly imprints of the quiet sledges of horrified children.
And the ice, with Jennifer Ann in it, waited and was still and my mother saw colours in it, limey green ones, the pink of dollymixtures; she saw reflections, the branches of trees skidding across its surface. And the winter sun lolled there, orange as a Jaffa.

My mother sucked her pigtails as she waited. Her hands were numb and her toes ached in her cosy fleecy ankle boots with the neat little zips. And day closed in, the twilight grey of the pond, that wicked silence of ice meeting the heaviness of sky in late afternoon. And all around, of course, there were people standing.

Next day our mother peered from her bedroom window. Solemn men brought Jennifer Ann up the garden, the quickest way to the main road. They past bare rose trees, walked up the crazy paving path. And Jennifer Ann aged ten lay on a stretcher, covered by a tartan blanket and flanked by Aileen in her best herringbone tweed suit, her face drained of all colour. And Harold Henshaw swayed up the path, gripping the stretcher with his large beefy hands as though it might turn back, head for the ice on its own accord; as though it had a mind of its own.

Our mother's washing dishes today.She's tired because she's forty six and she works fulltime and she looks after us all and she feels like a whirligig beetle.
And I'm creeping out of the house now because it's January and there's ice on our pond. I want to watch it crinkle. I want to look up at the sky, see clouds, watch their reflection flutter on the surface of our pond. I might touch the ice, see if it smells. I might stuff it in my mouth, taste it. There'll be coldness on the roof of my mouth. I might sniff it, hold it to my nostrils so that it slides into my nose. It'll be so cold it might burn me.

Our crazy paving leads me on a dance to the ice. It twists, it pirouettes, it twirls along. I'm swaying but not like Harold swayed, him full of whisky and his fatherly grief.
Ice is the stuff of fairy tales; the Snow Queen, pure white palaces. Ice can keep secrets. Ice has a past that recreates itself in seconds. It opens up, reveals marvellous things. I run across the garden.

In the kitchen, my mother dries coffee cups, sings in her soft tired voice along with the radio.