There was a framed photograph of me as a toddler on the wall, which just showed my head, with a mop of dark hair, dark eyes, and my neck fading away into nothing. When I was between two and three years old I used to gaze up at it and study it, and wonder when my arms and legs and the rest of me grew.
We lived in a tiny cottage on a farm in deepest Dorset countryside, far away from the bombs. I stood in the soft summer night and watched overloaded hay-wains swaying and creaking down the narrow lane past our cottage, pulled by huge, tired dray horses. Stray wisps of hay were straggled horizontally as the load brushed against the high hawthorn and hazel hedgerows. I could smell the fragrance of the hay, the warm sweet smell of the horses, the honeysuckle in the hedge and the scent of yellow gorse flowers.
On our way to the village shop we passed over an ancient stone bridge. I used to push my head between the balusters encrusted with lichen to watch the emerald green weed rippling in the clear water, until I realised my mother was far ahead with the push chair and I rushed panic-stricken after her. I dreaded going into the shop. Hanging from the ceiling was a flypaper covered in buzzing, screaming, struggling, dying flies. I felt frantic to get away from the noise and carnage.
In those halcyon days before I was four, our mother sang us to sleep in her beautiful voice with lullabies like: ‘Where the bee sucks there suck I, in a cowslip’s bell I lie, there I couch while owls do cry, and on a bat’s back I do fly,’ ‘One fine day,’ from Madame Butterfly, was another, and ‘Cherry ripe, cherry ripe’. The words, even to a small child, were as beautiful as the music.
In the same room as the picture of me sans arms and legs, was an enormous book. It got smaller as I got older. It was so thick and heavy I couldn’t lift it back then, but it was irresistible. It was covered in maroon coloured morocco, and had fascinating black thumbnail places at the side, and in the front coloured pages with patches of colour, green and blue, and pink (the British Empire I learned later!) These pages I also discovered later, were called maps, and I learned too, that the book was Webster’s Dictionary.
The A’s came straight after the maps, and there-in lay my downfall. I played for hours with this book, and inevitably, since the A’s came after the maps, they got a lot of wear. The pages became torn and dog-eared, wrinkled so as to be un-readable, crumpled, dirty, and scribbled on. Some pages of A’s disappeared altogether.
When my father came back from the war when I was nearly nine and re-claimed his dictionary along with his children, the dictionary became a source of anguish to us all. We were living at Belsen, and grim post-war Germany had no diversions like TV, cinema, or all the other entertainments we take for granted now. So everyone did the crossword, either from the Times or The Daily Telegraph, as it was called back then.
I think there must have been a sweepstake at the officers’ mess, because there was always great competition to get it finished first. If ever phone calls came from the mess – which was actually the Duke of Hanover’s palace – asking my parents – we lived in the Beast of Belsen’s former home – to quiz me about Alice in Wonderland or The Wind in the Willows, that would set my stepmother off on a frenzied hunt for a previously unrecognised clue.
Then the agony began when my somewhat unknown father wanted to look up a word beginning with ‘A’. He’d pick up the now shrunken dictionary, and start leafing bitterly through those tattered first pages as I watched anxiously. Finally he’d give up in disgust, with the exclamation: “Bloody kids!” and I’d slink guiltily away. He never normally swore, so it seemed all the worse. As the years went by, he said it every time, and as I got older, I finally realised it was a joke, and was able to stop flinching.
I still can’t resist dictionaries, almanacs, encyclopaedias and the like. My step grandfather used to give the family a copy of wonderful Whitaker’s Almanack every year at Christmas, and even now if I see an old copy in a second hand book-shop I’ll buy it… and read up about the scientific discoveries for that year, symptoms of every disease, orders of precedence in the English peerage, major architectural triumphs for that year, politics in outer Mongolia and what the stars have to say – astronomy, not astrology – amongst other pieces of useless but fascinating information.
Sadly, we gave away the thirty well loved and well travelled volumes of Encyclopaedia Brittanica last year to a boy’s school which needed some reference books. With all the glories of Google at our disposal, we never opened those heavy volumes with tiny print any more. I even bought my own thick copy of Webster’s years ago, but we never even use that now – the Concise Oxford is easier to handle, as well as Google.
All this came back to me as I tried to piece together a talk I’ve been asked to give about books to a local retired professionals club. I’ve dodged them for years, but have no more excuses left to fob them off with. So now I have to settle down to the hard work of talking, instead of the fun of writing – especially about books! How shall I start – “The A’s have it – dabbling in a dictionary – or what to give a three year old to read?”
Food for Threadbare Gourmets
Gallivanta asked me what pink pudding is…since I gave this recipe over a year ago, I’ll repeat it now for others who’ve missed out on a real treat! I found it over forty years ago in an old Vogue Living, and it’s been a favourite ever since. All you need if half a pint of cream, the same amount of plain or strawberry/ raspberry yogurt, and a tin of boysenberries or raspberries.
Drain the juice from the berries. I don’t use frozen, as they get watery and spoil the dish. Whip the cream until thick, fold the yogurt and fruit in, add caster sugar to taste, and chill in the fridge. You can melt some marshmallows in some of the fruit juice to make a firmer pudding, but we like all natural ingredients. Serve in a big glass dish with a rose in the middle or in individual glass dishes with a tiny hearts-ease flower to pretty it. Good shortbread is nice served with it.
Food for Thought
If souls were compared to moving vehicles, an unforgiving soul could be seen as a dump truck with tin cans dragging off the backside. Clatter, clatter, clang, clang!! If you listen you can hear them coming. from ‘Love Without End. Jesus Speaks’, by Glenda Green