Monday, 28 September 2009

All My Yesterdays – Part 2

From here we drove down to Burgess Hill, ten minutes away. The distances seemed shorter than they used to, the roads narrower. We pulled into the drive of our old school, the one neither of us had set foot in since we walked out for the last time in 1979, thirty years ago. If I pull my mind back to those days, they are now so long ago that I have the impression that I was once part of some Malory Towers scenario. At the time, it was as normal as my own children heading off to school in their school bus, blazers on, rucksacks on back. But seeing the changes that have taken place in those 30 years emphasizes that it was a totally different era – part of a world that no longer exists, except in my mind.

I had not expected to go to a girls’ private school, but changes in state education in the 70s forced the situation. I knew it was a stretch for my parents and I worried about that greatly. Maybe, though, this plays a part in why I have such strong imprints on my memory of this collection of buildings, the landscape they nestled in and the time I spent among them. And it is only now, going back, that I realise many of my night-time dreams are placed in locations approximating to these buildings and gardens. A small mystery solved, at least.

In those days it was a classic old school made up of Victorian houses with lovely gardens and little gravel paths edged with wood leading through trees and grass from one house to another. The floors were polished parquet, the stairs wide, or small and rickety in the parts that would have been servants’ quarters. Some corridors were wide, some were narrow and all had their own special smells. In contrast, there were also some very new state of the art buildings which made a big impression on me too. A particular favourite was the Assembly Hall – a magnificently incongruous structure attached to the main old house. It was 60s architecture at its very best (and, I noted with foolish pleasure, completed on 6th June 1963 just two days before my very birth) – a large, almost square, structure which had the stage at one end then floor to ceiling glass on the three remaining sides. It was a room filled with light and sun from which one’s eye could take in the gardens all around. Where better place to start one’s day. Inevitably the stranglehold of Health and Safety has ripped the heart out of it by insisting that those beautiful life-affirming glass panels be blacked out. Funny how we played badminton and volleyball in there for all those years and never once was there any cause for concern…

A little group of us, just six friends, had come together for this day: three I had stayed in touch with, two I had not seen for 30 years. We peered through windows and wandered into rooms we’d lived and breathed in as children. Names and faces, long forgotten, came flooding back as their ghosts walked with us. Memories abounded of hurtling around the Lacrosse pitch, playing netball matches on the top courts, or rounders on the bottom field (I was always terrified of being put in ‘deep field’ as I could never through the ball straight – oh, the agonies). We reminisced about the long trails of white loo paper we threaded through the rose garden on our last day at school, lamented the disappearance of the grass tennis court (a favourite place for me) and tried to embrace the new buildings everywhere which threatened to change this place in our minds forever.

As I wandered around, I was desperately clinging to the key memories I had, all brought to the fore by this return to something long left behind. I remembered my mother parking her car on the crunchy drive one hot summer afternoon, that first day that I met the headmistress with the bandy leg and wiry grey hair tied up in a chinon. It all felt so exciting, so different for the child straight from the country primary school in the middle of a cornfield. This was sophisticated, smart and not a little daunting. I remembered rummaging through the second hand uniform on the school stage, walking down the little steps (now gone) into the Assembly Hall for my Chemistry ‘O’ level, ginger-haired Mrs Ayers handing me my papers. I remember setting out my pencil case and my lucky charm on my desk and walking out at the end of my Biology ‘O’ level – the first ‘O’ level that I took. I remember the freedom of getting to and from school by train, juxtaposed with crunching into the school driveway and knowing that was where the freedom stopped and the Double Physics in the gloomy lab began. I always hated Tuesdays.

I remembered the blue winter berets, the beige felt summer hats and the nasty brown sandals which flew off when running (as the scars of gravel in my knee bear witness). I remembered Sophie with the long white plaster cast from a nasty accident on the school ski trip hobbling around at break time – a picture of her is frozen in my mind – and my friend reminded me of my own trials and tribulations with a large cast and crutches from that wretched skateboard accident.

I remembered slapping my Latin teacher in the face by mistake as I waved my hands around over-expansively while talking, and seeing the French teacher’s knickers as she sat swinging her little legs on the front desk while dictating some aspect of grammar.

Precious memories all, long buried but uniting the now disparate lives of us six friends in their resurrection. Time moving on, yet standing still, pasted on our mind’s eye for the rest of our lives.

Someone had brought photos of us at the end of our time there: that shot of ‘The Class of ‘79’ with us all poking our heads out of the branches of a small weeping tree (lost when they expanded the hard courts). We’d taken another on the steps outside the Assembly Hall. These were still there, so before we parted, we took one more photo for the record. Just some of The Malory Towers girls, thirty years on - berets long lost, all grown up.

I am, I can, I ought, I will. That was our school motto, and the Skylark was our emblem – encouraging us to reach for the skies and fly ever higher. Not bad really, when you come to think about it.

Monday, 21 September 2009

All My Yesterdays – Part 1

Going back is always tricky. Especially when where you’re going back from is not necessarily where you’re sure you want to be.

I arrived at Euston Station on Friday night and already noticed changes. There’s a new travel and information centre which means the Paperchase and The Body Shop booths have moved, and Tie Rack has gone. There’s no flower stall any more either. Outside there are now lots of coffee shops where once there were none. Down in the Underground all the ticket machines seem to have changed again. I still remember when you just pressed a big yellow square button saying ‘Adult Single’ with the price on it. I tried to look nonchalant but felt rather dazed and confused by the machines and what ticket I was meant to be asking for, and where I was going, and what zone it was in, and would a Travel Card be cheaper? All my former deep knowledge of my capital city and how it works had completely left me, or was so changed that it was no longer relevant. Oyster cards seem to be the only way to move around – but only worth it if you live in the city. For the rest of us, they just make the other options left open to you more difficult and complicated.

When I’d finally muddled my way through to Waterloo I was equally thrown. Now there are ticket barriers like in the Tube to all the platforms. I arrived with three minutes before my train left. Normally I’d have run to catch it and bought a ticket on the train. No longer. I had to search for The Machines again, queue, work out how the hell The Machine worked and what type of ticket I wanted and…I missed my train. Next one half an hour later. A second visit to M&S Simply Food ensued (already done once at Euston) to buy bottle of wine to complement box of chocolates for my hostess. I felt almost overwhelmed by the volume of people, the way our lives were crunching together, snatches of mobile phone conversations, banging into eachother, dodging eachother, hearing about people’s Friday night plans, the enormous queues, the largely unfriendly and disinterested faces at the tills. I have been away too long.

From there to Teddington and my friend’s house – a friend I hadn’t seen in seven years, but one I’d known since I was a child of seven. We used to walk across the park and catch the train to school together. She was my neighbour but one. We made camps in the hedge, rode bikes round the houses, played games of ‘Flutter’ and African Mancala up in her bedroom and seemed to spend hours of our lives tidying it at her mother’s request. I had my first ‘French kiss’ with a boy in her parents’ sitting room. Yes, we grew up together.

Now here we were, middle-aged women and mothers both – she, more sensibly, to just one child. I last saw said child as a seven year old. I remember my own toddler playing in her pink bedroom with all her pink fairy castles and Barbie dolls. She seemed so old compared to mine. Now my youngest, my ‘little one’, is the age she was then and this once child is now a teenager. How Time plays games with us. The champagne was opened and the catch-up began in earnest. I was fed a wonderful meal, friend’s husband serving and allowing us to talk (what an angel he is).

The following day we were to drive down to Sussex. We turned out of her road and I instantly saw the huge church where I used to take my little daughters for ‘Monkey Music’ and where I made a special friend. We drove along Teddington High Street and I recalled pushing my tinies up there in their pushchairs not really so many years ago, but it felt like a different lifetime. In those days the High Street was unremarkable, but now it is heaving with enticing looking restaurants, shops and cafes. I felt a little jealous as my mind flicked, unbidden, to the high street of Chapel-en-le Frith. Fair to say there is no comparison. We passed streets and roundabouts I remembered for a hundred inconsequential reasons, past the house of old friends of my parents, and thence into Bushy Park. It was all too strong a reminder of how I loved those London parklands – a tract of country in the great metropolis – and where I had spent so many hours myself. The deer with their mighty antlers strode arrogantly close to the road, groups of people were engaged in arduous looking push-ups with a man with a large rucksack on his back barking at them (had they paid for this?); people walked along grassy paths through the bracken and cyclists were everywhere. People enjoying a Saturday morning in London in the milky September sunshine, just as I had once done.

We passed Hampton Court Palace where I have enjoyed concerts and shown friends, foreigners and my own small children, in that different lifetime, the beautiful rooms and gardens. Crossing the Thames I thought of N’s aunt and uncle just downstream at Sunbury. How I love their house and wish I was still close enough to pop down there for lunch on a summer’s day, to sit at the end of their garden, drink in hand, rocking gently back and forward on their swinging chair, watching the life of the Thames drift by, the smell of river water filling my nostrils and the chat ebbing and flowing like the tide.

We passed a large pub where I stopped once with a friend on my way back from work in Brighton. It fell into disuse and became a sad blot on the landscape. It is now flourishing again, all painted up and fancy with manicured box in outsize terracotta pots lining the walls. The circle of life.

Our next stop was my friend’s parents’ house. Pulling into the drive, everything seemed smaller, apart from the trees and bushes which had grown bigger. I always remembered the kitchen carpet, unchanged. Ditto the red benches and the formica table and the once state-of-the-art ceramic topped cooker. Memories crowded in of Christmas Day Pimms parties, and hours on the red benches doing homework and sipping ‘milky coffee’ (hot milk with Nescafe – a 70s English version of a latte I suppose). The old apple tree with the swing fell down in the Great Storm of ’87. A new summerhouse stands in its place.

I popped to the loo and my thoughts were of the very same downstairs cloakroom (right down to the tiles) that we had in my old house, two doors up. I remembered the pen and ink drawings of roses that my mother had done which hung on the walls. Our house was identical to theirs – a classic build of the late sixties – hence being back in theirs was almost like being back in mine. Sadly, as we drove past, I noticed it was looking rather neglected with weeds along the edges of the very drive where I badly broke and dislocated my ankle on a skateboard in 1977 – a day I will never forget and whose physical repercussions have followed me through the rest of my life.
[to be continued]

Wednesday, 16 September 2009

Gone in a puff of smoke

What's going on? First it's Michael Jackson, now it's Patrick Swayze and Keith Floyd! Rather bizarre that some us were watching a Keith Allen documentary on him just last night. Now he's dead. Keith Floyd I mean. Apparently he died well - after a hearty lunch of oysters and champagne and wine and some other fishy thing and some more champagne and a quick slug of wine and then...he died. Marvellous. To die like that I mean. Not the fact that he died. I rather liked the man for all that fantastic non political correctness and the fact that he was a TV chef who didn't swear (or did he?). Last of the Old Guard. I grew up with him, of course, in the background of my life. Floyd on France, Floyd on Fish, Floyd in Some Far Flung Place Again. (Jamie, I'm sorry mate, it's all been done before...). And now, suddenly, he's gone. Has to be said that he was no advert for food and drink. Not enough food, too much drink, clearly. My God, he looked ravaged. Decades older than my 81 year old father (who, it has to be said, enjoys a good glass too). My liver was pretty much packing up just looking at him, let alone my lungs as he coughed and wheezed his way through another cigarette. Still, I'm a great believer in living life to enjoy it. It's far too bloody short not to (although, of course, you can make it a little shorter, can't you Keith, if you lack a small ability to moderate...?). Still, I was heartened to see that in the last shots of him a week ago, sitting outside a pub or something, he looked considerably better than he'd done in the Keith Allen documentary. Ironic that he then dropped dead.

And then there's Patrick Swayze, the man so many young girls have wept for, silently and alone, staring at the poster on the wall of their teenage bedroom (and who always rather reminded me of the boyfriend I lost my virginity too - well, round the face at least, the rest of him rather lacked the physique). Ah yes. Sigh. All that brawn, muscle and pulsating sex appeal. It was tragic to see him so shredded by disease, a grim reminder of what might be ahead for any of us. Especially if you smoke, I guess. Still, life is for living, and both these characters lived it, that's for sure. The choice is yours, in the end.

Here, perhaps, is how we would like to remember them:-

Tuesday, 8 September 2009

Where did the time go?

I have taken a pause in packing up the house - a job I hate and put off for as long as I can - to reflect on our time out here.

So, has it been a good holiday? Well, yes it has. For the first time since we bought the place, I would say we have had a 'proper' summer and I thank God for that! Until now, it had been so consistently unreliable that, much as we love it as I've described, we were wondering whether it was really delivering the goods as regards the weather - so important in the context of it being an escape from the almost relentlessly cold, damp, windy High Peak. But, enfin, this year we have found what we came looking for.

The days have passed easily enough in a melange of friends, family, beach, meals in, meals out, and the odd trip further afield just to shake things up a bit. There have been breakfasts and lunches in hot sunshine - snacks on the beach watching the waves crash over golden sands, the view and the croque monsieur washed down with a chilled bottle of wine or a cold beer; other times in the shade of a favourite restaurant savouring the more maritime flavours of crevettes au gingembre, huitres, moules au bleu, seared scallops or squid in ink. There have also been plenty of omelettes, crepes, pizzas and the ubiquitous maigret de canard or steak frites. Simple pleasures of the palate. And then imagine young girls with chocolate ice-cream all over their faces and their pretty summer dresses, and you have a picture of childhood paradise.

Sea defences have been built and washed away, castles created and crowned, holes dug. Shells and stones have weighed down buckets; crabs called Colin caught and lost and tears shed; knees grazed, hair bleached blonder and skin turned softly golden by the warm and cold embrace of sun and sea. Books have been read, postcards written but not sent, new words learnt and new friends made.

And this year we have finally all made in-roads into the surfing. For many this is the raison d'etre of the Cote d'Aquitaine - the kilometre after kilometre of sandy seabord against which the mighty swells of the Atlantic Ocean bark their shins and curl into majestic aquamarine arcs releasing all the oceanic energy built up over thousands of watery miles. Somtimes these waves are strong and perfectly formed - a surfer's dream; sometimes they are ragged and angry, spitting with foamy rage onto the shore; and just occasionally they are calmer, quieter. Yet even then you must never let your guard down: the currents formed by the sand banks and hidden lagoons ('baines') are always present, always dangerous for the unwary or the arrogant.

It is over this sea, in all its moods, that the thing we love best about all western coasts takes place - sunset after glorious sunset. For us, a beach holiday can never really be complete without the full stop at the end of the day - the fiery orb, giver of all earthly life, slipping slowly through the earth's atmosphere towards the horizon, leaving, as it sinks ever lower, the rosy reflection of its flamboyant evening gown glowing on the faces of all who watch, transfixed, by this daily wonder.

And now I must put my own full stop on our holiday. The time has come to draw stumps, reluctantly but refreshed, and point the car north again. Time to go and finish the packing.

Au revoir for now.

France, 30th August 2009
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