Preparing for the next adventure in my life, I look around the house wondering what to keep and what to let go, and I realise there are some things I cannot be parted from. They own me and I am their custodian.
There’s the pair of wooden corkscrew candlesticks which belonged to my grandmother. They sat on her kitchen mantelpiece above the black range, and since they came into my hands, I have carted them around the world. She was a feisty little red- haired late Victorian lady who converted to the Salvation Army as a girl and went to the East End of London to help save souls and sell the Army’s newspaper, ‘The War Cry’ outside pubs at closing time – and got pelted with rotten fruit for her pains. Another of the stories she told me was about her grandfather, Captain Covell, reputedly the first man to sail a paddle steamer up the Thames in the early years of the nineteenth century, and that when he arrived at the docks he was given the Freedom of the City of London.
She told me how she was asleep with her sister Jessie in her bedroom in a leafy Kent town the night Woolwich Arsenal blew up in 1907. The sky was red, and the bedroom windows and the glass in her dressing table shattered.
“We fell on our knees, and prayed” she told me, “we thought the end of the world had come.” At seven I had never imagined the world could come to an end and was haunted by this terrifying possibility for the rest of my childhood (neither did I know what Woolwich Arsenal was). She always referred to World War One as ‘The Great War’ … her husband had fought in it and her only brother died in it.
She was a highly intelligent woman, who typically for her period in history, had no outlet for her talents, and my brother once told me he’d never seen anyone add a column of figures faster; while I, during my childhood, was the beneficiary of her large collection of books, including antique early editions of classics like Pilgrim’s Progress, Foxe’s Martyrs, and Robinson Crusoe (which I was driven to read by the time I was eight, for lack of children’s books). My sister inherited her feisty nature, my brother her piercing intelligence, and I, her bent for the spiritual life which never left her, her love of reading, and the candle sticks.
A treasured brass tray on the pine dresser was hammered out of the top of a shell case by my father’s batman. The batman had etched classic Egyptian figures into the brass, in their classic sideways pose. I don’t know how long they had served together… but my father had been a Desert Rat and escaped from Tobruk, while the alliterative names of his battles rang around my childhood, Sidi Bahrani, and Sidi Rezegh, Bardia and Benghazi… before then he had escaped from France three weeks after Dunkirk, and later, fought his way up Italy before returning to Egypt when the war was over.
I was a baby when he left, and nearly nine when he returned in 1947, to be posted with the Occupation forces to Belsen two months later. My tenth birthday was the first I ever spent with him, and he was so excited that he gave me my presents the night before… a string of pearls and a black fountain pen with a gold nib and clip… the last presents he ever chose for me himself. He died too young to know his grandchildren and great grandchildren, and before I was mature enough to want to know about him and his war, so the brass tray, the one possession of his that I have, is priceless.
The egg-shell china antique coffee set, white, blue and gold, was given to me on my wedding day by my step- grandmother who had also received them on her wedding day, and her book –Testament of Youth – she gave me to read when I was seventeen. In spite of Vera Brittain’s rather priggish voice to me, a child of the forties and fifties, I still dissolved into a puddle of anguished tears as I read it. And I understood from it much about this grandmother, who over a hundred years ago now, had waved her fiancee away, rainbow banners billowing in the north- country breeze, flowers flying, trumpets sounding, drums tapping out a triumphant tattoo as the exuberant young men marched through the village in 1914… never to return.
She was so beautiful that it wasn’t hard for her to find a husband even in a time when there were too few men, and she often reminisced to me about that distant past. She told me about the floating flowered tulle tea gown she wore to a garden party in Shrewsbury in the early thirties when she met the Prince of Wales; of the doctor who set eyes on her, and wanted to marry her, only to see her pushing her pram a few days later… the time her long frilly white petticoat suddenly fell to the pavement from under her long skirt, and how she simply stepped out of it and walked away…. memories that will disappear like gossamer shreds of tulle too, when I no longer remember them.
I will keep the tiny etching of Ripon Cathedral for a grandchild – it had once belonged his other great-grandfather, a padre who was badly wounded on a beach at D-Day. On the back in faded italic handwriting is its story. It says that when the North Transept of Ripon Cathedral was re-roofed in 1842, the wood from the original roof was used to frame this picture. The Cathedral, a work in progress on the site of three former buildings, was finally roofed in 1156. It takes up to a hundred and fifty years before an oak is ready to use in construction, so the mature oak used for the roof, and now framing the picture, must have been growing well before 1066, that dividing line in English history. So the wood in this frame is over a thousand years old.
Which makes me think of the span of years that my memories stretch across. Our formidable black-garbed great-grandmother was in her nineties when I met her as a four- year- old in 1942, which means that she was born just before the 1850’s, a hundred and sixty-five years ago now. By the time my eldest grandchild is in his eighties, sixty years from now, the span of generations will be two hundred and twenty five years… not long in the history of the world, but the span of two lifetimes have seen the world move from the age of steam, crinoline and candle-light, to this blog – one of over eighty million on the internet – and to travel in space among the stars… so where will the world be at the end of that third life-time in 2075?
These facts and figures make me feel that my sentimental memories and guardianship of these little possessions may not have any significance at all. L.P. Hartley wrote: ‘The past is a foreign country’, and for today’s generations this may be only too true. So I now feel that though I‘ll continue to cherish these objects linked to other proud and passionate lives – lives lived through some of the most turbulent times in the history of the world – in the future, these things may not be so precious to anyone else
To a generation who live in the present, preserving the moment in selfies and on Facebook, tweeting and twittering and texting, my past, our ancestors, and the last century must seem as far away as the days of the dinosaurs… ah well, I tell myself, ‘ sic transit gloria mundi ‘- ‘ So passes away earthly glory…
Food for threadbare gourmets
On a cold wet winter’s day when I read of summer blossoming in blogs all over the northern hemisphere, I think of this salad, which is good in any season in which you can find fresh fennel and hard green apples – preferably grannie smiths.
I grind 75 gms of walnuts in the grinder which I use for parmesan cheese, and stir them into a quarter of a cup of good quality mayonnaise, quarter of a cup of plain yogurt and the zest and juice of a lemon to taste. Slice two grannie smiths and a large fennel bulb into thin matchsticks, and then mix with the walnut mixture. A few chopped fennel leaves are good too. If you like ham, it’s good with it, but I just eat it with a hard-boiled egg and crusty rolls for a refreshing lunch.
Food for thought
These I have loved:
White plates and cups, clean-gleaming,
Ringed with blue lines; and feathery, faery dust;
Wet roofs, beneath the lamp-light; the strong crust
Of friendly bread; and many-tasting food;
Rainbows; and the blue bitter smoke of wood …
The first lines from Rupert Brooke’s nostalgic poem The Great Lover