“Use your elbow–grease,” my grandmother would chide me good humouredly… or ask: “where’s your gumption?” Where indeed? I searched my somewhat limited seven year old soul but could find no trace of these desirable qualities – whatever they were – for I had no idea. I was completely puzzled, and sad to disappoint her.
However the lack of these mystifying gifts ceased to matter when at a fortnight’s notice, I left my grandmother forever, to join my father just returned from Egypt with his new wife. After a month he disappeared to Germany, and my stepmother and I waited for his summons until a house had been found for us. During those months, instead of going to school, my stepmother gave me lessons in the afternoon. Looking back, though a fully trained physiotherapist, she may not have been quite so well qualified to teach small children, but those were more carefree times, when anything went, and often did.
In my case, we didn’t do much maths, thankfully, but I learnt lots of poetry, mainly, I think, the poets my stepmother had ‘done’ at school in the thirties. These included Sir Walter Scott, Elizabeth Browning, Wordsworth and chunks of Longfellow’s Hiawatha. She was hot on spelling – and as a nine year old, lists of words like phlegm, diaphragm, diphthong, delphinium, rhododendron, asthma, psychology, diarrhoea had to be memorised every day. If I’d ended up in the medical profession this vocabulary might have stood me in good stead, but since then I’ve often wished that I had instead mastered how to spell ‘receive’ and all the exceptions of’ ie’, as well as ‘commitment’, both my constant stumbling blocks.
When it came to composition – as it was called – I was a disappointment to her, the way I’d felt with my grandmother, when I lacked elbow grease and gumption. But what I was lacking now, was imagination. “Use your imagination,” she’d say, and once again, I had no idea what imagination was, though I thought it might have something to do with writing about fairies, which I felt was childish.
I felt mysteriously depressed, as at school I’d always been quite good at composition. But the problem of imagination didn’t seem so important once we got to war-torn Europe. We travelled through apocalyptic scenes – cities of mountains of bricks, with half buildings with crooked pictures still on the wall, a door open and chairs still at a table, and skeletons of ruined churches – before finally reaching the infamous place called Belsen, where our new home was the Beast of Belsen’s old digs.
Those were bleak times in Europe and I often felt bleak too. Now my father, almost unknown after years away at war, expected me to have common sense. This seemed more important than gumption, elbow grease, or imagination all put together, and just as un-attainable. I think they thought I was sensible when my best friend was murdered. I had gone to fetch her for our early morning riding lesson, but she didn’t answer the door. When I got home after riding, Mary had been found shot in the kitchen, and her younger brother was shot at the door as he had tried to escape. Her father had then shot himself because his wife had left him.
I never spoke to my new parents about this, my chief worry being Mary’s brother’s feelings as he dashed for the door, and also that Mary mightn’t have made it into heaven, which I knew my parents didn’t believe in. I cried every night in bed, and begged God to let her in. But though I was apparently phlegmatic, the magic of common sense still eluded me – as in: “do use your common sense, child,” or the unanswerable question: “haven’t you got any common sense?” When I joined the army as a teenager at my father’s behest, I knew he hoped I might now discover some hidden well of this commodity which he seemed to think I really needed for a successful life.
But here was another pitfall. An officer was supposed to have initiative and to use it! This, as a very young officer, I quickly realised, was dangerous. Initiative was a two-edged sword, with unknown consequences, which not everyone appreciated. So it was with relief that I looked forward to marriage, when, I supposed with blind optimism, none of these things would be required of me.
But on the third day into married life, I discovered that things were not as I had thought they were, had to write a big cheque which cleaned me out, and then faced an unpredictable, precarious, and impoverished life on shifting sands. The upside was that I discovered I did have gumption after all! And I needed it.
Elbow grease, on the other hand, was something quite prosaic I came to realise, and was only needed for wax-polishing antique furniture, the idea being that the intense pressure of the elbow grease created friction, and the resultant heat melted the invisible wax crystals, causing them to meld together and create those shining surfaces. Frankly, it was easier just to put the dusters in the oven, and polish with hot dusters instead of elbow grease. The only other use for elbow grease seemed to be for scrubbing burnt saucepans, an activity I have always strenuously avoided.
Common sense? Well I’ve discovered that common sense is merely a matter of opinion, and that one man’s common sense is another man’s madness… so to take a somewhat extreme example, Hitler’s idea of common sense would not be mine – so I’ve flagged common sense. And initiative doesn’t bother me any more – I’m in sole command, and don’t have to answer to any superior officers!
Which leaves me with that lack of imagination. Well, it’s something I’ve got used to, and have had to realise that I never could produce an interesting imaginative novel! I recognise imagination in great works of art, both literary and artistic, in fine blogs, in glorious architecture and opera, in gardening and interior decoration, even in solving problems… but I’m still digging for it in myself…
Jane Austen has sometimes been un-imaginatively accused of lacking imagination, and I used to cling to her definition of her art in a letter to her brother Edward, in which she refers to her: ‘little bit (two inches wide) of Ivory on which I work with so fine a Brush’, but to be brutally realistic, this is not really much comfort, since she painted masterpieces on her little bit of ivory with her fine brush. For me, lacking the flights of fancy that come with a soaring imagination, all I can do is to notice and to describe, and I did find some consolation in these words by the enigmatic writer Fernando Pessoa.
He wrote: “What moves lives. What is said endures. There’s nothing in life that’s less real for having been described. Small-minded critics point out that such and such a poem, with its protracted cadences, in the end says merely that it’s a nice day. But to say it’s a nice day is difficult, and the nice day itself passes on. It’s up to us to conserve the nice day in a wordy, florid memory, sprinkling new flowers and new stars over the fields and skies of the empty, fleeting outer world.”
These words hearten me for I too, can at least conserve the day in wordy, florid memories, try to sprinkle new flowers over the fields and skies of the fleeting outer world, and thoroughly enjoy myself while I’m sprinkling! So here’s to florid memories and new flowers!
Food for threadbare gourmets
This is the strawberry season, so it’s crazy to serve anything else for pudding besides these luscious fruits. Friends for dinner meant a quick foray to the nearest strawberry fields. The ones I wanted, where the strawberries are grown by a Vietnamese genius, whose berries are the biggest, sweetest and cheapest, hadn’t opened, so I had to fall back on the other strawberry fields. I usually find theirs a bit tough and tart, but solved the problem by hulling them, and putting them in a dish out in the sun. As the day went by, the delectable scent of soft, sweet, ripe strawberries warm from the sun tempted my taste-buds every time I passed them.
With them I usually do Chantilly cream. One of my grandsons will eat this neat, and has learned how to make it for himself, a useful skill when he goes flatting at University! Take one cup of thick cream, two table spoons of icing sugar and a few drops of vanilla and whip them together. I usually make three times this amount, just tripling all the ingredients.
Food for thought
So long as a bee is outside the petals of the lotus and has not tasted its honey, it hovers around the flower buzzing. But when it is inside the flower it drinks the nectar silently. So long as a man quarrels about doctrines and dogmas, he has not tasted the nectar of the true faith; once he has tasted it he becomes still.
Sri Ramakrishna 1883- 1886 Famous Hindu teacher and mystic, who believed that all religions led to the same God, and who practised both Christianity and Islam