Hallowe’en? Not in my memory of the Spalding of the 1950s…
The prospect of tonight’s steady stream of youthful ‘trick or treaters’ (for readers around the globe, children in the UK visit houses at Hallowe’en to offer a choice: a trick played upon the household or a treat given by the household to the visitors to ward off any tricks) has stirred in me memories of the Bonfire Nights (or Guy Fawkes Nights) of my childhood.
I’m talking about a time when we didn’t ‘do’ Hallowe’en – at least, not in South Lincolnshire. Although I think it’s mainly an import from the USA (I anticipate contradiction!) , some parts of the UK did celebrate Hallowe’en, even then: when I went to university, my flat-mate, who came from Lancashire, told me how her two brothers at Hallowe’en, which they called ‘Mischief Night’, had removed the gates from their school and put them on the roof. But in Spalding, where I grew up, there was only Bonfire Night, celebrated on November 5th, the anniversary of the date on which Guy Fawkes tried to blow up the Houses of Parliament. In retrospect, I realise that our Bonfire Nights incorporated some elements of Hallowe’en as well.
Bonfire Night was among my favourite events on the calendar. My brother and I started preparations weeks in advance, at first by collecting materials for as big a bonfire as our father would let us build at the bottom of our (quite large) garden. Then we’d beg old clothes from relatives to make a guy. He was constructed out of a shirt or jacket tacked on to a pair of trousers and stuffed with newspaper. The sleeves and legs of the trousers were fastened with string. His face would be made from a carved and hollowed-out mangold wurzel (field beet) containing a candle, if we were ambitious, or, more often than not, just covered with a cardboard mask bought from Woolworths. Each year there was a Woolworths counter overflowing with these masks, which featured the faces of ghosts, witches, pirates and skeletons; I think this was where the Hallowe’en element came in. The guy also wore a hat, if we could get one: good hats were in short supply. Guys were usually completed at least a week before Bonfire Night, so they could be showed off. We were allowed to sit ours outside the gate of our house with a tin bearing a ‘Penny for the Guy’ sign, but my mother wouldn’t let us push him around the streets begging for pennies, as some children did. She thought it was ‘common’!
The suspense leading up to Bonfire Night was huge. Teachers joined in the fun: I vividly remember making bonfires, guys and fireworks out of plasticine in a primary school art class. And we must have heard the story of the original Guy Fawkes – some of whose accomplices had had strong links with East Anglia – every single year. Along with 1066, it was certainly the episode in British history with which I was best acquainted.
At the end of school, we rushed home to dress up. Girls wore garish make-up and boys’ fathers often blacked their sons’ faces with pieces of cork held in the ashes of the fire or drew moustaches on them (some pictures of Guy Fawkes showed him with a twirling, Salvador Dali-type moustache). We wore whatever we could get together as fancy dress: it was before the era of the purpose-made (money-spinning) clothes that children’s parents buy for Hallowe’en and Bonfire Night now. Parents sometimes helped, and the outfits could be ingenious: I remember one child dressed as a skeleton – his mother had made an outfit out of black cartridge paper with the bones drawn on in white chalk. Girls often became witches for the night – we were taught at school how to make black pointed hats, also from cartridge paper. Whatever the outfit, we all had one of the cardboard masks from Woolworths (which were made out of the type of card now used for egg-boxes). We’d turn up at neighbours’ houses heavily disguised with our masks pulled down, then whip them up to reveal the made-up face beneath. The idea was that no-one could recognise us, with or without the mask.
We were permitted to take the guy with us on Bonfire Night itself. Ours was transported in the old family push-chair, an ancient conveyance made from khaki canvas and which had solid wheels. Although I suppose it’s unlikely that there were services-issue push-chairs, it looked as if it might have been army surplus, sold by the Army and Navy stores. I don’t think anyone in the family could remember where it originally came from. It was wide and cumbersome and difficult to take up and down the houses in the street without running off the paths and into people’s flower borders. Some children carried mangold wurzels or hollowed-out sugar beets with candles in them.
It was dark when we went Guy Fawkesing, but we were allowed to go round the houses on our own, though always in groups of at least three (my brother and I joined the two girls who lived next door). The boundaries were our street and the next one. The streets were thronged with children: it was the height of the baby boom and two or three children lived at almost every house. I’m sure we were all quite safe out on the streets that night.
There were just two rhymes that we chanted to the householders:
Please to remember
The fifth of November
Gunpowder, treason and plot
I see no reason
Why gunpowder treason
Should ever be forgot.
Please spare a penny for the poor old guy!
If you haven’t got a penny, a ha’penny will do;
If you haven’t got a ha’penny
Then God bless you!
The householder would then give us each a penny – sometimes twopence, if we were lucky – and usually some sweets as well. Sherbet dabs (boiled-sweet lollies in a bag of sherbet) and sherbet fountains (a tube of sherbet with a hollow ‘straw’ of liquorice to suck it up with) were my favourites. We carried old Ovaltine tins with string handles for the loot.
The trick was to get round as soon after dark as possible, before people ran out of treats, and then go home in time to see some of the children who came knocking at our own door and inspect their outfits. Sometimes when we went the rounds, early fireworks were already being let off and the air smelt excitingly of gunpowder.
After the last Guy Fawkesing stragglers had gone home, it was time to light the bonfire. First of all, the guy was seated on the top of it. Then my father would light the fire and we were instructed to stand back. I always felt a bit sad when the guy succumbed to the flames: he’d been a friend for the whole of the previous week… but there would be another one the next year. When he was well alight, my father began to light the fireworks. We always had a mixed box of Standard fireworks – I think they cost ten shillings (I’ve been amazed to read that a similar box now costs £45!) – a few ‘special’ fireworks, usually large golden rain or firework fountains (as we weren’t keen on loud bangs) or rockets, and some sparklers and hand-held fireworks. Each family had its own bonfire and fireworks: large firework parties for the whole neighbourhood had yet to be thought of. We baked potatoes in the ashes of the bonfire and ate toffee apples if the toffee apple man had been round that day (which he was usually enterprising enough to have managed). When we went into the house at the end of the evening, we were given vegetable soup with big hunks of bread to warm us up.
Miraculously, most of the Bonfire Nights of my childhood were bright and clear: I remember seeing rockets sailing into the stars. On the couple of times that it rained, we still went on the Guy Fawkesing rounds, but the bonfire had to be postponed until the next day. Then we were bitterly disappointed.
Hello, I’m A’dam…
I was in Amsterdam for the day job earlier this week and, because I had very little time to myself, I challenged my husband (who was along for the ride!) to capture the spirit of Amsterdam in fifty photographs, so that I might be able to feel as if I’d been sightseeing. I so enjoyed what he produced that I’ve decided to have a picture post with all fifty, so that you also may visit A’dam. As a beekeeper, he was delighted to find an apiary in a most original location; perhaps you can spot the hives, too.
All text and photographs on this website © Christina James
To be, or not to be… a lady.
‘And I of ladies most deject and wretched …’
I’m not actually feeling depressed myself: with these words, Ophelia, in Shakespeare’s Hamlet, bewails the fact that Hamlet, who has recently been wooing her, is now treating her with utter contempt and has implied that she, because she is a woman, can be no lady, unless a licentious ‘painted’ one. The word ‘lady’ is one I’ve been pondering since, a week ago, we spent two very enjoyable days walking with our friends Priscilla and Rupert and, over breakfast, I told an anecdote from my remote bookselling past, which, briefly, goes like this:
The founder of the small library supply company for which I used to work, who was a First World War veteran and a very old man (I’ll call him ‘Mr Smith’) when I first met him, always stayed at the George Hotel in Stamford on his visits to and from London. His wife, a formidable lady by all accounts, the eldest of five clannish and strong-willed sisters, was a semi-invalid who spent most of her time at home, engaged in various projects that could be completed from her bed; for example, she taught herself fluent German. However, when her illness – whatever it was, it always sounded quite vague to me – was in remission, she would occasionally accompany him on his business trips and eventually they checked in together at the George, which is a magnificent old coaching inn and quite grand in its way. One of the services it has always offered is tea in bed, delivered by a waiter. On the morning after their arrival, the waiter duly knocked at the door and entered with their tea tray. The founder’s wife sat up in bed to take it from him. The founder himself also sat up and the waiter addressed him with the following greeting:
‘Good morning, Mr Smith. Not the usual lady, I see!’
Aside from the fact that I find this very funny – it became one of the company legends – it’s interesting because of its use of the word ‘lady’, always a slipperier noun than its plainer alternative, ‘woman’. My husband was once berated by some female colleagues for saying ‘Good morning, ladies,’ even though, as he pointed out, ‘Good morning, women,’ sounds both comic and slightly disrespectful (and in any case, he added, he always said, ‘Good morning, gentlemen,’ to a group of men). But ‘lady’ is not a straightforward term. If not used with care, it can be very patronising: why do we refer to ‘dinner ladies’ and ‘cleaning ladies’, but use the terms ‘female’ or ‘woman’ as epithets for women with a recognised profession (policewoman, female barrister, woman MP)? Would anyone today refer to a ‘lady teacher’ or a ‘lady librarian’? (There were actually ‘lady librarians’ running the public library service before the Second World War; they were generally women from the upper middle classes, whose families were so well-heeled that the local authorities didn’t need to pay them a salary and, as soon as salaries were introduced, many of these jobs were then taken by men! ) And what of the careers to which women have been admitted only in more recent times? Would anyone seriously allude to a lady soldier, a lady bus driver or a lady CEO? Don’t we all abhor the slimy man who refers to his spouse as ‘the lady wife’?
And yet … amid the hubbub of modern life, we may – sometimes – still wish to be referred to as ‘ladies’. For example, when a mother with a lively child in tow says to it, ‘Give up your seat to this lady,’ or ‘Be careful, don’t bump into that lady,’ it would be only the most truculent and militant of us who would correct her and say, ‘Please refer to me as a woman.’ Shops – including online ones – still refer to ‘ladies’ fashions’ and, although some facilities in hotels, restaurants and public places are now marked ‘Men’ and ‘Women’, most still use the more traditional ‘Gentlemen’ and ‘Ladies’. Speechmakers still begin their address with ‘Ladies and Gentlemen’ – or sometimes even the grander ‘My Lords, Ladies and Gentlemen,’ with its delightful implication that all ‘ladies’ are in some way aristocratic. And most of us are fascinated by the great ladies of the past: Bess of Hardwick, who began life as a ‘woman’ and worked her way up; Lady Castlemaine, one of Charles II’s two most famous mistresses (though the other, Nell Gwynne, was definitely a ‘woman’); and two scintillating Duchesses of Devonshire, each quite different from the other – Georgiana, the eighteenth century holder of that title, and the recently-deceased Deborah, chatelaine of Chatsworth House, who was born a lady and became a greater one.
Listing some of these ladies, however, brings out another connotation of the word: it can be and often is very closely associated with the oldest profession. Thus the deliciously evocative ‘ladies of the night’, ‘his lady-friend’ (meaning ‘not his wife’) and a ‘lady no better than she should be’, a term much favoured by my grandmother, usually delivered with a flash of the eye and a pulling-down of her skirt over her knees, as if to imply that her virtue, at least, was safe.
I return to Ophelia. One of Shakespeare’s most enigmatic heroines, she is portrayed both as the ultimate virgin and, after her madness sets in, as a foul-mouthed woman conversant with sexual practices unbefitting a ‘maid’. ‘Lady’ is a word she uses frequently. She herself embodies its ambiguity, and by extension the double entendre of the word itself. It is an equivocation which today’s women, who in this country have almost but not quite achieved equality and in many others are still fighting a tough uphill battle to get anywhere near it, often resent. Are we ladies or women? Does the word ‘lady’ still have a place in our society? What of its counterpart, ‘gentleman’? But that, perhaps, raises a wholly different topic!
I’ll leave the penultimate word to Ophelia:
‘Good night, ladies; good night, sweet ladies; good night, good night.’
And the last to myself:
Or, perhaps, ‘Good-bye, Ladies? Hello, Women?’ Words, words, words!
A fortnight in Provence…
I think it was Barbara Pym who said that the trouble with keeping a diary is that half the time you have nothing to say and the other half you are so busy doing something demanding that there’s no time to write. The same goes for blog posts. There are several things that I’ve been meaning to write about for weeks and still not got round to. However, today I’ve (almost) caught up with the day job and it’s raining outside. Winter’s coming and the engineer has just been to service the boiler, which means the house is feeling cosy. A perfect blog-post-writing situation!
My husband and I are Francophiles and veterans of many holidays in France (our favourite remains the two weeks we spent at a camp-site at Argentière while we explored the French Alps on foot. We were young and very poor and the camp-site was accommodatingly cheap; it had two shaft toilets, two showers and no hot water. We lived on Vesta curries and tinned beans. But the walks – and the views – were amazing!). We’ve been to most of the départements in France, but until this year we’d never visited Provence – partly, I must admit, because after the publication of A Year in Provence and its sequels we had assumed it would be a tourist trap. This year, we took our holiday later and, knowing that it would coincide with la rentrée, we made the plunge and booked a gîte at L’Isle-sur-la-Sorgue, a pretty town that lies just outside the area made famous by the Peter Mayle books.
It’s known for the huge market that takes it over on Sundays and its elaborate Sorgue waterway system, operated by a series of waterwheels and sluices, that irrigates the surrounding countryside. The tourist season was not completely finished, but we saw only a few Belgians, Dutch and Germans taking late holidays and almost no Britons. The town itself remains unspoilt by outlandish tourist attractions.
The same could be said for the region beyond it. There are some interesting places to visit, including: La Fontaine de Vaucluse, the source of the beautiful Sorgue (its depth remains uncertain, though numerous attempts, including one by Jacques Cousteau, have tried to plumb it) – Petrarch rather liked it here;
the ochre rocks of Roussillon, in the Parc Naturel Régional du Luberon, that (allegedly) supplied the pigment for Van Gogh’s sunflowers;
a working lavender factory. Yet none of these sets out to exploit tourists in a hard-nosed kind of way. Of them all, I liked the lavender factory the best. It has a small shop attached, set in hectares of its own rolling lavender fields. The first thing that struck me about the lavender was how tall it grows there, accustomed as I am to the more compact, domesticated-looking variety found in Norfolk.
The people who own the Provenςal factory also manage the shop and arrange short tours of the essential oil distillation process. They have constructed working models that demonstrate how the lavender essence is extracted from the flowers and they’re able to show some compelling footage of people in peasant dress working in the lavender fields before the Second World War, cutting rapidly with lethal-looking scythes and machetes. Apparently accidents were frequent – they worked so fast that they often injured themselves – but their mantra was ‘that which has caused the pain provides the cure’ – or so the commentator maintained. My guess is that they whipped something a little more colourful from their vocabulary when arms or legs were spurting blood, but the point being made was that lavender is a powerful antiseptic.
Lavender also has many other medicinal properties. I was fascinated to learn that it comes in three grades: lavender officinalis, the top grade, which is the one used for medicinal purposes; lavende aspic, a kind of middle grade which is mainly used as an essential oil in perfumes and amphorae;
and lavendin, made from a hybrid of two varieties of lavender with the consequence that it is actually sterile (so of no use to bees!). Lavendin is used as a herb and dried to fill scented sachets and such things as padded coat-hangers. Apparently, it has some medicinal uses, but you have to know what they are: it can aggravate burns, for example.
We’d taken the tour (and been distracted from the guide’s words by seeing a praying mantis clinging to a water bottle in the workshop), made a few purchases and returned to our car when I realised that I’d bought only lavende aspic. I returned to the shop to purchase some lavende officinalis, and found it was deserted. I conducted a small reconnoitre and discovered the two assistants outside in the yard, both gasping away on their fags. Very French! And even more Peter Mayle!!
A quest for the truth: Catana Tully’s ‘Split at the Root’
An autobiography which challenges the reader’s perceptions of things is always going to be worth reading; when the life itself is rich in experience and narrated with flair and refined prose, the whole book won’t fail to impress. I read Catana Tully’s ‘Split at the Root: A Memoir of Love and Lost Identity’ over two days, mesmerised by her account of her upbringing, at first in Guatemala, by a German couple who split her from her birth mother and re-grafted her upon the stem of their family, though without formally adopting her.
The delicate handling of this chronological narrative, covering the whole of the author’s life, ensures that the circumstances are viewed from Catana’s perspective as she grows and matures, not with the benefit of hindsight from her position today; her subjectivity, stage by stage, therefore limits perspective and obliges the reader to examine personal attitudes to what happens and to the various characters who appear in Catana’s story. As a writer of crime fiction, I’m only too aware of the power of suggestion, implication and withheld information, and I found myself exploring what was being given without too much absolute certainty as to the validity of my deductions; Catana Tully plays the reader with supreme skill and the surprises continue to come again and again, right to the very end. This process, of course, ensures considerable empathy with the growing girl, but Catana doesn’t pull punches with her presentation of less appealing features of her developing character (gosh, she had some temper!).
I’m very reluctant to provide here much precise information about the narrative, as to do so would undoubtedly spoil others’ experience of reading it, but I will say that issues of (not in any order) heritage, culture, language, skin colour, prejudice (and I don’t just mean racial), origin, family, relationships, love, duty, education, psychology and adoption are presented for scrutiny in the most unobtrusive way, woven into the fabric of the story so skilfully that the mind continues to work on them long after the reading is complete.
This is a narrative which was clearly painful in the telling, for it lays bare the very nature of Catana herself and must have caused her considerable anguish, but her sense of humour and her great good sense both shine through, so that I was left with a feeling of great joy in the celebration of the self and the huge significance of personal identity. ‘Finding oneself’ is a pale way of depicting what this book is about, for it doesn’t shrink from shattering stereotypes and stereotypical ways of looking at and dealing with the world in the process of a quest that is quite overwhelming in its complexity.
Have I overwhelmed you with all this? I hope not, for the narrative is very readable indeed and the experiences which the book charts are fascinating, stimulating and often delightful. This is not a book that has an axe to grind or a message to pound home: it is a glorious tribute to the individual, in all her multi-faceted forms. Do read it; you will not be disappointed.
In in verse proportion: half the stress; double the delight!
Yesterday I spent a superlative afternoon at Rickaro Books, Horbury, to celebrate three events: the launch of Holding Your Hand Through Hard Times, by A Firm Of Poets (some of whom are now also Firm Friends of this blog!) on the first day of this year’s Books Are My Bag festivities; the birthday of one of Rickaro Books’ regular customers; and last, but by no means least, the thirteenth birthday of Rickaro Books itself. Toasts were drunk in sparkling wine while it rained outside: a wonderfully cosy and pleasantly decadent way of spending a Saturday afternoon!
The four poets who performed yesterday were Ralph Dartford, a founding member of A Firm Of Poets, accounts of whose at once tongue-in-cheek and poignant performances (‘Now then! / In November 1950 / Pablo Picasso / visited Sheffield / for a hair cut, / Peace, / and some toast.’) have graced this blog before (he has a lovely wife who always supports his performances);
Matt Abbott, a born performance poet, whose rendering of a pathetic yet comic drunk was particularly hilarious (‘I’ll have a bottle of Beck’s from the fridge / ‘cause you all might have stopped drinking / but I’m from Horbury Bridge / and I’m – yeah, I’ll have some gravy, love …’);
and, new to me but very impressive indeed, the goth poet Geneviève Walsh (‘So many love songs which compare desire to sunshine, / a practice as futile as comparing art to dust. / This is England, see, and the sunshine’s more akin / to a tax rebate / or a lottery win’).
The work of all these poets, as well as that of John Darwin and Matthew Hedley Stoppard (whom I’ve also met and been wowed by at an event at Rickaro Books, so I was disappointed that he couldn’t be there yesterday) appears in the beautifully-produced, chapbook-style Holding Your Hand Through Hard Times.
If you happen to be in West Yorkshire, you could do no better than to buy it from Rickaro Books and have a look round the shop at the same time – it is a very distinctive shop which sells both new and antiquarian books.
But I mentioned four poets and I’ve only described three. There was, in fact, a fourth poet present, who also performed, joining A Firm Of Poets as he regularly does; his poems (which he read from his mobile phone, having forgotten to bring the text with him!) don’t feature in Holding Your Hand Through Hard Times. His name is William Thirsk-Gaskill.
Perhaps because he now has a double-barrelled name, my husband and I didn’t recognise the former plain William Gaskill at first – though my husband says that he knew the voice as soon as he heard William speak. When we first met, he was a very talented schoolboy and we were also young, though not as young as he was (William obligingly informed us that my husband was twenty-nine at the time, so I will have been twenty-eight!). To see him again gave the day an extra special bonus. William was also selling a book: Escape Kit, a novella, which we have bought but have yet to read. I’ll review it here when I’ve finished it.
Events at Rickaro Books are always distinctive, memorable and successful. It was a great privilege to be able to attend its Books Are My Bag launch and celebrate with A Firm of Poets. I am therefore extraordinarily proud to be able to tell my readers that Richard of Rickaro Books will be supplying the stock at ‘Tea at Sausage Hall’, Wakefield One’s wonderful way of celebrating the publication of the third of my DI Yates series, on November 19th. And I’m thrilled that some of A Firm of Poets have said that they will be supporting me by attending. Riches indeed! Thank you all so much. I’m looking forward to it already. Meantime, I wish you every success with your books.
A brief visit to Ann Arbor
As readers of this blog may know from Twitter, two weeks ago I made a brief (day job) visit to Ann Arbor. It is a university town, home of the University of Michigan and adjacent to, but by no means overshadowed by, the great industrial city of Detroit. Aside from passing twice through the airport (seventies in style; seen better days), I saw nothing of Detroit itself.
I spent only a few leisure hours in downtown Ann Arbor, as I was working for the rest of my very short stay. However, I was fortunate enough to visit its compact and pretty centre on an unseasonably warm, summery day. Brilliant sunshine bathed Main Street in heat and light; the pavement cafes were doing a brisk trade; the local populace sauntered up and down the sidewalks, bare-legged and dressed in T-shirts, most of them in happy and expansive mood.
Talking to a few locals (a taxi-driver, the concierge at my hotel), I discovered that the people of Ann Arbor are particularly proud of its trees, which are at their most glorious in early autumn. By the standards of distance that pertain in the USA, Ann Arbor is not far from Canada, and its ‘fall’, I imagine, has similar characteristics to its neighbour’s. In early October, the trees sport every hue from palest lemon-yellow to deepest russet and ruby-red. This may sound just like our own English trees in the autumn, but there are two spectacular differences: in the first place, the colours in Michigan are often more vivid; in the second place, the trees ‘turn’ in a very uneven way. Thus you might find half of the same tree still sporting leaves of glossy green, the other half already turned a fiery red. My hosts told me that the trees sometimes remain like this until the end of November, before they become completely red or brown and shed their leaves at last.
The trees made an enormous impression, but I was also delighted with Ann Arbor itself. The staff in the cafés, restaurants and shops, many of which were French in style, were friendly without being over the top, business-like without compromising good service. I particularly liked the Café Felix, where I enjoyed a light salad lunch, and Cherry Republic, the wonderful shop a little further down the street which sold everything that could conceivably be made of cherries and was very proud of the quality of its goods (the saleslady asked for my name and address in case I wanted to return any of my purchases: I told her that I’d have a long journey bringing them back!).
It also sold maple syrup – Michigan maple syrup, I was exhorted to note, not the Canadian stuff.
Also intriguing were the squirrels. In this part of the world they are not grey, but either black or red, or red-and-black. Here’s a picture of one that caught my eye.
In case you’re wondering about the name ‘Ann Arbor’, the town was founded in the first half of the nineteenth century by two men whose wives were both named Ann. According to legend, they therefore decided to call the town after both of them. ‘Arbor’ is self-explanatory: perhaps they intended it to be a place of rest and contentment; it may or may not have referred to a particular arbor under which the women sat.
I’m hoping to return to Ann Arbor in December, when perhaps I’ll see some snow. I’ll keep you posted!