A is for Dictionary

100_0360There 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



Filed under books, cookery/recipes, great days, humour, life/style, literature, The Sound of Water, Thoughts on writing and life, Uncategorized

52 responses to “A is for Dictionary

  1. Good luck on your talk. You will be great. You have such interesting stories to tell.


  2. Oh how I love a good dictionary as well! In my family we love to open it to a random page and read a random word from it, etymology and all. It’s like a door to magical lands, leading to other words, new stories.

    I love imagining you as a little girl with the great big dictionary. And the pink pudding sounds delicious too!


  3. elisaruland

    Your post is timely! Our power went out for a few hours this morning and I was forced to look up a word in the dictionary for the first time in years. It was like visiting an old friend! Good luck with your talk, I wish I could listen in and actually hear the sound of your voice.


  4. Such great days you write about. Love of books and words were bound up in that worn dictionary. I would love to hear your speech, but perhaps you’ll have a story to write as a result. The pink pudding sounds refreshing.


  5. This is so rich, I don’t know where to start. I want to sink deep into it, “push my head between its lichen-encruster balusters” and lose myself in the old Webster’s, tattered pages and all. “A is for Dictionary” could be the title of your talk, and these earliest childhood memories, when the love of books is formed even before a child can read, would be a terrific place to begin.
    My mother used to sing “Cherry Ripe, Cherry Ripe” to us in India! And I was just corresponding with my Uncle about crosswords. he and Mum used to knock off the Daily Telegraph one together and leave me in the dust! Just these past couple of days I have been revisited the Guardian crossword after a long time to see whether I can write something about them.
    So many questions! What were you doing living in Belsen? Deepest Dorset to Belsen–wow! And the pink pudding sounds like Summer Pudding but still healthier. I have a fridge full of berries–blackberries and blueberries–and have just bought some heavy cream. The only missing ingredient is the Heart’s-ease.
    A delicious post.


    • Oh Josna, what a wonderful response, and I can’t get over how our culture is shared across time and space… It makes me rather sad to think that that life of the mind, and crossing of boundaries so that we all share so much may disappear under the pressures of today’s education which seems so different to the one we all used to have. So James, James, Morrison Morison… Cherry ripe.and Crossword puzzles are ” the ties that bind ‘ us, amongst other things!!!
      As to your questions… from deepest Dorset, we had a couple of spells in London, and a heavenly time in an old monastery in Yorkshire before ending up in an army quarter in Germany, where my father was stationed in the Army of Occupation.


  6. A lovely post Valerie as usual your words transport me to another place and time. I too love dictionaries and encyclopaedia. My father bought me a set of children’s Brittanica and I can remember the excitement when I was allowed to progress to the adult set. Good luck with your talk 🙂


  7. Hello Dory,
    So glad you enjoyed it… I thought it was just my bit of fun, but isn’t it interesting that we do share all these things? Did you also come across or enjoy Arthur Mee’s Childrens Encyclopaedia… we were allowed to look at them at school any time we’d finished our work before anyone else – when we were little…


  8. ‘What to give a 3 year old to read’; definitely the title for your talk 🙂 I loved your memories of your early reading days and the poignant memories of your mother’s singing. I was an early reader and, so, once at school I found the basic Janet(?) and John reading material utterly boring. Fortunately my mother let me read almost anything I wanted to and I am so grateful for that. In one of your posts you had a lovely photo of your bookshelf; it was fascinating and showed, amongst other things, your great love of books and beauty. And thank you so much for the Pink Pudding recipe. I have all the ingredients now and am ready to try it.


    • Yes, weren’t those early months of school utterly boring… it never crossed my mind to tell them that I could read, so I could skip ‘ a- for- apple’ etc !!!
      Hope you enjoy the pink pudding after all this biuld-up !!


      • I am sure I will. Sadly some teachers wouldn’t have believed you. I tried to persuade my daughter’s first teacher that she could read (not spell!) beyond her years. But still she came home with boring readers and boring tedious exercises! Thank goodness for the alternatives available in the school library.


  9. Valerie, as usual (:-) your theme is mine. I’m homeschooling my daughter and my supportive brother, who is a teacher, frequently provide us with books for which his school has no more space. (Yep, read that again). School libraries shrink in size and bookshelves are replaced with desks for Ipads and Ibooks. I love those old fashioned dictionaries and encyclopaedia.

    You might find ‘your’ old books back at book fairs and school-sales. I bet.


    • I rather envy you home-schooling your daughter… it must be such fun for you both…my daughter was born sociable, and I would never have been able to do it, even as a six year-old she knew everyone in the nieghbourhood – helping the grocer unpack his stuff, helping a
      neighbour paint her kitchen, sherry with the docotor’s wife, helping wash the local taxi-drivers taxi…playing patience with an 80 year old , and that’s not a complete list!!!


  10. Talk about a grounding in letters! Yours was A+ until you got them minused!


  11. This was such a lovely trip through your memories. The opening paragraph was gorgeous, and I also loved that book getting smaller as you grew – which also related to the growth you were able to do so that you finally realised your father was joking. I think your speech is going to be great. And I shall certainly try that pudding – it’s just my thing: natural and very easy!! Thanks, Valerie.


    • What a lovely perceptive comment, Gabriela – so glad you enjoyed it…
      Thank you for your encouragement about the talk..it doesn’t come naturally to me !!! Hope you enjoy the pudding….


      • Sam

        Nice to meet you Kaylie. You have know idea how excited I am to think that us blog fweololrs are going to get possibly 2 posts a week. Can’t wait to see your fun idea’s as well as Sandi’s awesomeness!! Post away ..


  12. This story reminds me of my own. The exploration of the monthly Readers Digest condensed can be substituted for the dictionary. My brother and sister had the big books with the pink indents and I daren’t touch them but for a few occasions when the tissue paper provided my first love of paper and the printed word. Even the scent has stayed with me.
    Valerie, I absolutely love your writing. I learn so much about *how* to write well just by reading your posts here. There is not much missed by me as far as technique goes because I am a glutton :). The fact you chose to mention that the bombs were far away as opposed to the line – It was 194? in the tiny town of Dorset – Just such a pleasure to read.
    I hope someone will video your presentation so it can be shared here.


    • Lesley, thank you so much for your lovely enthusiastic encouragement, it always surprises me that others do enjoy my writing, and see in it what they do…and as a writer you would know what a gift the validation from other writers is. So thank you.
      Those early smells and the feel of tissue paper…
      fascinating weren’t they ..!


  13. Luanne

    Ah, Valerie, what a delightful story! It was such a treat for me today.


  14. I loved our great big dictionary as well growing up. 🙂 I love being surrounded by books. I struggle with the fact I love my tablet so much and it allows me to “carry” so many books with me on holiday.


    • Isn’t it interesting how those big old dictionaries played such a large part in our memories ! I envy you… I still haven’t tackled the electronic reading age… if that’s what it is !!!


      • It’s a blow for freedom. I love to read on my holidays and packing all those books before was getting a bit nuts! But there is a down side in that I fear real books will be a thing of the past at some point which would be a real shame.


  15. Dictionaries always scared me! I could never spell – still can’t and am truly grateful for spell-check, which I understand from research has helped many of us who failed all spelling bees that came our way. Whenever I asked a teacher or parent, how to spell a certain word, they said “look it up in the dictionary.” I really don’t think they understood how ridiculous they sounded to a frustrated child. But I have found that this memory has served me very well over the years for it has helped me to look at my inconsistencies, which are many, with a clearer vision. And I have come to love dictionaries….

    “Dictionary: The universe in alphabetical order.” Anatole France


    • I wish dear old Samuel Johnson had come across Anatole France’s definition of a dictionary, I think it would have delighted him !!! I love it.

      I’m afraid I don’t use the spell-checker, but rely on my memory and whether it ‘looks’ right… I find the spell checker combined with its trans-Atlantic bias, and bossy suggestions about grammar and sentence construction thoroughly annoying !
      I expect it shows !!! You are so philosophical about yourself !!!


  16. LOVED this piece. The dictionary came alive as did the picture sans arms and legs. Your descriptions of nature somehow remind me of Thomas Hardy with a touch of the romantics. Probably because of the strangeness and quaintness added to the mundane that is your touch.


    • Thank you Bottleworder – so glad you enjoyed it!
      Yes, I was writing about Thomas Hardy country – Tess of the D ‘Urbervilles to be exact …how clever of you…
      And was driven to the dictionary to look up the meaning of ‘quaint’ in the context of your comment !!!


  17. When I was a small child we didn’t have any available books so I craved them. Our one room school didn’t have much to offer a Grade One child (who learned to read from a few story records and Sunday school lessons) , except a shelf of atlases. We had grade level readers but no library. When you get a chance please read my archive post “Reading For The Sheer Love Of it”.
    I enjoy your blog very much and your talent for sharing your stories and insights. Your threadbare gourmet feature makes one feel part of your friendly circle.


    • Thank you so much for your comments, loved to feel that you enjoyed the Threadbare Gourmet. I
      I’ve now been to your blog, and read so many delightful blogs there, including the one on reading…
      Your blog is a delight to read…thank you


  18. Patty B

    I enjoyed your trip down memory lane, like you I loved our encyclopedias and would sit for hours absorbing it. Now google has become my friend and I can search the internet for hours for some very interesting topics. But that said there is nothing like remembering the turning of pages, the smell of the pages and laying on the floor with the book spread out before me! Have a great day ~


  19. Despite Google and the online Webster (to which I subscribe) I still have an entire section on my bookself of Dictionary, Thesaurus, Synonym Finders and other wonderful word books. I simply love them. My family, when my beloved step-mother was still with us use to play many different word games, including Scrabble, Balderdash (our favorite), Origin of Expression and a few others.

    I loved, as I always do your walk through your history. I know you will do great on your engagement. You have such a wealth of experience to draw from.


    • Oh Val, I would feel very at home in your house… I still love all those books and all the biographical dictionaries, and compendiums on fables, and literature,and quotations etc !

      Thank you for your encouragement…I love it that you enjoyed my ramblings !


  20. Amy

    That is such a beautiful writing of your sentimental memories. It tells wonderful stories of your growing-up with these books and growing old of the encyclopedia… Enjoy the talk! Looking forward to your post about the talk 🙂


  21. Michele Seminara

    Gorgeous writing about your early life here Valerie. I saw and smelt and felt and heard everything. So well done.


  22. Hello Valerie, my thoughts are with you for your talk. I’m a shockingly bad talker and much prefer writing, so I know what you’re going through.

    As much as I struggle to educate them otherwise my children don’t understand why we need dictionaries, they think the internet is the sole font of all wisdom. There is a American comedian called Steven Wright who once said ‘The first time I read the dictionary I thought it was a poem about everything’, which I think is brilliant because I guess in way it is! And I still scan through my shorter OED to discover random words that I’ve never seen before. I do the cryptic crosswords in the Guardian and the Observer so new word are always a useful ally

    And you may appreciate a little dictionary related joke…

    What does ‘DNA’ stand for?

    The National Dyslexic Association.

    Tee hee 🙂


    • Ha-ha, Finn – great to hear from you…. I loved the comedian’s description of the dictionary… rather beautiful…
      Yes, I know what you mean about children and the internet… but now my grandson is 23, and an absolute fount of information and wide interests well outside his Uni subjects, I can see I shouldn’t have worried !!!
      And yes, like you, I do still use the dictionary… I enjoy being waylaid by words i haven’t come across too!


  23. Juliet

    How vividly you evoke those childhood memories of the hay-wains, the bridge and the dictionary. My parents also had a giant Websters which they pulled out for crosswords and later scrabble. Your talk will be well worth listening to I’m sure. PS Haven’t forgotten our get-together, just completing the car changeover and need to get over the coughing virus now.


  24. I wonder if the retired Professionals club is the Probus Club by any chance? If it is, I’m on the Executive of our Club here on Salt Spring Island and extend a big hello. However, this is probably much too late!

    Books were the candy of my day. Somehow through no library and schools without books, mother secured a copy of Grimm’s Fairy Tales. The drawings were everything to me – until I could read. Then having the words explain the picture was like solving a huge mystery. The world opened with a promise of never running out of visions, adventure and beauty.

    The next interesting book was the Doctor’s Book with it’s pages of coloured transparencies putting together the human being layer by layer. I can still hear my older brother, “Mom! She in the Doctor’s book again!”

    While I thought mother was protecting us from an early sex education, she was probably sparing the tome since it was well used in our rural home.


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