Two lovely men

I talk about these two men in my biography on this site. However, I recently came upon their obituaries when I was looking through old photos and wanted to celebrate the time I spent with each of them. I loved them both.

I had the good fortune to be personal assistant to John St John at Heinemann in the early 1970s. He had his own list within Heinemann and often allowed me to meet the authors. Some of the stories are in my biography. I felt that finally I had found my niche – Heinemann was in Curzon Street in Mayfair and I was able to walk there from our flat in Ebury Street, Victoria.

I ran past Buckingham Palace, through Green Park and via Shepherd’s Market to work. At lunchtime, I’d rush to Berwick Street market in Soho to buy food for supper – Johnny often went to The Reform Club to meet people for lunch. Publishing was very badly paid but full of interesting people coming and going. I was lucky to have spent time with J St J and I learned a lot along the way.

Our list incorporated Peter Drucker on Economics, an Auguste Escoffier reprint of ‘A Guide to Modern Cookery’, a book on ‘Biofeedback’ (for which I was a guinea pig) and ‘The Thousand Petalled Lotus’ by an Indian monk, which got me into trouble! More on this in my biography …

John St John died suddenly of a heart attack, having recently retired. He had just finished writing a history of Heinemann. By then I had left publishing to have our first daughter. It came as a terrible shock. I still miss him.

As I do Oliver Caldecott, who had been at Penguin. He and a colleague, Dieter Pevsner (son of Nikolaus Pevsner), along with David Harrison, set up a small publishing house in Floral Street, Covent Garden, called Wildwood House. I arrived in 1975 as P.A. to Olly on a salary of £2,300 pounds a year.

joining Wildwood House

We published ‘Alternative London’ written by Nicholas Saunders, who also set up Neal’s Yard in Covent Garden with a wholefood shop. This proved very successful and he then added a dairy, a café and an ‘apothecary’, offering alternative natural remedies. Neal’s Yard continues to survive today – they also have a fabulous cheese shop and the walk-in massage rooms are much recommended by me. Look up more about Nicholas Saunders and Neal’s Yard on Wikipedia.

Other books I remember are ‘The Tao of Physics’ by Fritjof Capra, ‘Radical Technology‘ by Godfrey Boyle, ‘The Drovers’ Roads of Wales’ by Fay Godwin and Shirley Toulson, books by Studs Terkel writing about ordinary working people in America, ‘The Unexpurgated Code’ by J. P. Donleavy and ‘The Tao of Love & Sex’ by Jolan Chang.

Oliver Caldecott – obituaries
a wonderful obituary by Giles Gordonliterary agent
Oliver Caldecott

Whereas John St John enjoyed the Reform Club as his go-to lunch venue – and publishers enjoyed daily lunches in those days – Oliver’s choice was Poons at 41 King Street, Covent Garden – known for such clientele as Mick Jagger and Barbara Streisand.

One uplifting thing about ‘lockdown’ is that I have had time to look back and remember those good times. I hope there will be a few more!


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‘The Mirror & the Light’ by Hilary Mantel

These ‘coronavirus’ months at home began with feeling anxious. It settled down into a routine, restful at times, restless at others. Gradually, lockdown started to become tedious and I became desperate to achieve something other than domestic chores – all necessary but many of them repetitive, made worse by not much of a change of scene or social encounters. I don’t like long chats on the phone, Zoom was an alternative but ultimately unsatisfactory, so reading and writing, both of them top of my list in ‘normal’ life, enjoyed more and more of my time.

I read ‘Wolf Hall’ some years ago aboard a Turkish gulet, sailing along the Lycian coast. It took me a while to get into it but something suddenly ‘clicked’ and I was on my way. The second book, ‘Bring Up The Bodies’, didn’t need any support from the first. I was already captivated and rushed straight in.

Instead of adding my own comments here, I ask you to read what the critics said about both those books, which are listed at the front of both ‘Wolf Hall’ and ‘Bring up the Bodies’. Many of them are very insightful and I would be surprised if anyone who reads them doesn’t immediately immerse themselves in the books.

The last part of the trilogy, ‘The Mirror & the Light’, finally arrived and given my own sojourn in the ‘tower’ during lockdown, it seemed to me to be the very best time to attempt the 900 pages confronting me.

back cover of ‘The Mirror & the Light’

Hilary Mantel lists the cast of characters and their connections to one another at the beginning of each book, along with family trees of the Tudors and their rivals. You need to make yourself familiar with all of this before starting to read if you don’t have a good knowledge of English history.

I’ve now finished the trilogy and I feel like a door has closed. The endpapers wrapping around ‘The Mirror & the Light’ show the sinister Traitor’s Gate at the Tower of London. I have survived the blood and guts of the Tudor Court and I realise we have a living genius in our midst. This is literature that will last. I am mesmerised, entranced – it is as if Hilary Mantel has gone back to Tudor times and, as an emissary, reported back to us in 2020. As Rachel Cooke in ‘The Observer’ noted about ‘Wolf Hall’ – ‘I loved ‘Wolf Hall’, but I was spooked by it too. The voice is so true: I have my suspicions that Hilary Mantel actually is Thomas Cromwell’.

Of ‘Bring Up The Bodies’, Jeremy Clarke of ‘The Spectator’ said ‘I am looking forward to being hideously spellbound once more’.

endpaper of Traitor’s Gate, the Tower of London

This is, (I hardly like to call it fiction), based on excellently researched historical fact. It’s like old footage of black and white films suddenly being transformed into colour and life. And then you realise that these people were just like us in their emotions, which often overcame common sense and led to ultimate disaster.

The religious and political bonds with the rest of Western Europe were both intimate and paramount in dictating how Henry VIII behaved both in war and in wives. ‘Catholics and Protestants alike hamstring politics, breed hatred, burn, torture, eviscerate, all in the name of God’ (Peter Green TLS).

Women were bartering tools, often used to gain wealth in land or possessions and not only with the king. If they could not produce a son and heir, they were usually got rid of – sometimes brutally. The Court was a lavish but dangerous place to inhabit – ‘ladies’ did not escape being beheaded too. Cromwell rose to be Henry’s Chief Advisor but he knew he walked a fine line, and would one day probably miss his footing.

When he is investigated for treason you look back in the book and see how threads are woven together to make trumped up charges stick – they are like fine silver and gold chains left to their own devices in a drawer, which tie themselves into knots and cannot be undone. As he became more and more powerful, the Lord Privy Seal failed to keep a sharp eye on his adversaries, some of whom he counted as ‘friends’. But would Cromwell have wanted to take over from Henry as Regent had the right circumstances arisen? I think so.

Cromwell was tough, acquisitive as befitting his position, promoting his family, all the while being aware of his aristocratic enemies who envied him and desired his downfall but he was also thoughtful, with a real eye for the beauty of the natural world and its seasons.

I walk down a street that I now know Thomas Cromwell would have walked down in the mid 1500s in London – and it’s a weird feeling. I’m on the look out for a flash of that orange coat, long gone but orange is still a favourite colour.

Colour, taste and smell infiltrate these characters, these places, the food, the small details of daily life in Tudor times. Hilary Mantel has created both a mega and micro world, which is totally immersive to the reader.

I can’t do better than recommend (again) reading the critics listed quotes at the beginning of the first two books. There is no point in me adding to these brilliant comments. Instead, I’m just going to put down a few descriptions which I found magical in ‘The Mirror & the Light’ and which will, I hope, encourage you to take up the 900 pages!

‘The king wears green velvet: he is a verdant lawn, starred with diamonds.’ He is young, fit and handsome.

Later on, when Henry has become obese and diseased … ‘The king’s beard bristles. He looks like a hog’s pudding about to burst its skin.’

‘In his (Cromwell’s) chamber the air is sharply scented: juniper, cinnamon. He takes off his orange coat’.

In the kitchens …

‘At his feet, eels are swimming in a pail, twisting and gliding; interlacing in their futile efforts, as they wait to be killed and sauced …..

a ceramic eel, given to John

The eels come in, presented in two fashions: salted in an almond sauce, and baked with the juice of an orange. There is a spinach tart, green as the summer evening, flavoured with nutmeg and a splash of rosewater. The silver gleams; the napkins are folded into the shapes of Tudor roses …’

This could also be an image of the Court – the rewards of the flesh, the riches to be gained, the honours to be had but all for a price – some may wriggle out of being beheaded but many will bear the fate of a cruel death before their time … or many years of imprisonment.

‘It is an aromatic custard in a white dish. He saw the gooseberries earlier, tiny bubbles of green glass, sour as a friar on a fast day. For this dish you need fresh hens’ eggs and a pitcher of cream; you need to be a prince of the church to afford the sugar……. The custard quakes in waves of sweetness and spice. ‘Nutmeg,’he says. ‘Mace. Cumin.’ ‘And rosewater.’

And with a final flourish, he freckles the cream with slivers of almonds and a drop or two of elderflower cordial.

Followed by sweet Venetian cakes, often made with ‘syrup of violets’.

You should read page 164/5 just for the prose poetry of it.

There are small phrases – ‘a glance rinsed with rage’, ‘eyes like deep ponds on a still day’, ‘striated clouds like bales of silk’, ‘what maggots of ambition might be burrowing into the mind of the Duke of Norfolk’. An exquisite description of plums on page 681, fruits the size of a ‘baby’s heart’.

Cromwell reflecting on his youth, ‘scenting the staleness of soiled straw and stagnant water, the hot grease of the smithy, horse sweat, leather, grass, yeast, tallow, honey, wet dog, spilled beer, the lanes and wharves of his childhood’.

Hans Holbein is the Court painter. ‘In answer to his (Cromwell’s) summons, Master Holbein comes. He trails with him traces of his occupation: the scents of linseed and lavender oil, pine-resin and rabbit-skin glue’.

The Tudor Court is held up as a ‘dark mirror’ to our own world. We haven’t learned enough from mistakes made in the past. Or maybe Mantel’s ‘astonishing insight into human psychology (much of it extremely nasty)’ ( ‘The Spectator’) means we are not able to evolve as we should into a higher understanding of our place on the planet.

Just as the Traitor’s Gate endpapers enfold the book, so does the river Thames contain the city of London in its winding flow, the water reflecting times past and present, storm and calm, rain and sunlight, night and day.

…’so I won’t see August, he (Cromwell) thinks. The hares that flee the harvester, the cold morning dews after St Bartholomew’s Day. Or the leaf fall, the dark blue nights’ …

When Hilary Mantel had finished the final paragraphs of ‘The Mirror & the Light’ she went to bed and after a very disturbed night awoke to find that her print portrait of Henry VIII had fallen off her wall.


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The Vaults at Waterloo

I didn’t know that these underground tunnels which spider out from Waterloo station even existed. They have been turned into an arts space, which include an underground theatre. Spooky bars with shadowy characters in dark corners made me feel I would never see daylight again.

Oddly, we came upon a family we knew well, who live outside of London. One of the daughters is at Goldsmiths Art College. We enjoyed a drink together in the expectant gloom.

Making our way to the underground theatre through snaking passages and stairways, we arrived to hear the physicist, Jim al-Khalili, talking about his new science fiction novel, ‘Sunfall’. I love his science programmes on television and radio – he’s an excellent presenter. John bought a copy of his book.

The entrance to The Vaults is on Leake Street, a walk south from Waterloo station. I felt I’d entered a wormhole to the 1960s, given the alternative ‘arty’ welcome. The walls of the tunnels are alive as they suck you into a black hole.

starlight cat

This is my favourite ‘graffito’.

behind the screen they can see you …

This is what unnerves me about computers …

man of mystery …

but at least there’s light at the end of this tunnel.

someone to keep at arm’s length …
in a while, crocodile …

This was a bizarre experience – a rendezvous with ‘creatures of the night’. Mind expanding is good!


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‘Faces’ on Ludgate Hill by Emily Young FRSS

Walking up Ludgate Hill from Fleet Street, I was about to cross the road towards St Paul’s Cathedral … when

ancient and modernruler

this stopped me in my tracks … and there were more!


I don’t know what these sculptures represent and so I’ve just put in my own interpretation of the faces. They are magnificent.

‘Emily Young is Britain’s greatest living stone carver’ (Financial Times 2015).


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Soap/sapo/sabun – a short history of soap

Sales of soap have rocketed during ‘coronavirus’. A gift of soap has always been welcome – our forced early return from Greece in March, Covid-19 snapping at our heels, had six bars of orange scented olive soap tucked into my luggage, which were happily received by friends.

soap from Greece – 2020

I began to think of the origins of soap, the word coming from Latin ‘sapo’. I looked up ‘soap’ in many different languages and nearly all begin with ‘s’ or a soft sound.

The earliest recorded evidence of soap dates back to 2800 BC in ancient Babylon. A formula for soap – water, alkali and cassia oil – was found written on a clay tablet about 2200 BC.

It’s commonly thought that the process of soap making came from Arabic chemists in the Levant region (of which Aleppo is a main city) and to have moved westwards to Europe after the early Crusades.

Both animal fat and olive oil have been used in soap making. There is also a plant called ‘soapwort’ (saponaria officinalis), which when agitated in water makes a foam, and is a mild cleanser of clothes. It’s also called ‘Bouncing Bet’ – which was a nickname for a washerwoman. However, it’s quite poisonous, so shouldn’t be ingested or used for personal hygiene.

Olive oil rather than animal fat was used in making ‘Aleppo’ soap and the addition of aromatic plants like lavender, germander, yarrow and thyme gave it a pleasant smell. It was said the soap was used by Queen Cleopatra of Egypt and Queen Zenobia of Syria. Besides using olive oil and lye, laurel oil was infused.

soaps – colours and fragrances

As soap making developed, coconut, safflower, sunflower, avocado and argan oils were among others substituted.

Laurel oil was in short supply in Europe and so it was finally dropped there. I’m not sure whether this was a good idea, as looking up the properties of laurel oil – laurus nobilis – I find it impressive! It is a natural antiseptic used in aromatherapy and is also antimicrobial, anti fungal and anti itching. Good for beards and shaving? It is also said to clear mental confusion and clarify thought processes – something a number of us seem to need nowadays …

And then there’s the Greek myth of Apollo and Daphne, ‘daphne’ being the Greek name for laurel. It was a fairly extreme decision that the gods took for this poor nymph to help her escape his clutches! To find out more, look up the painting called ‘Apollo and Daphne’, attributed to Piero del Pollaiolo (approx 1441 – 1496), now in The National Gallery in London. Digression … but I like promoting a favourite painting – this one is quite unusual.

A laurel wreath in athletics wrapped around the head symbolises victory and is still used as a symbol in the Olympic Games. Maybe artisanal soapmakers in the West should look into adding laurel oil into their soap once more.

‘laurus nobilis’ – sweet bay laurel

Soap was also made from animal fat. About 1,000 BC there’s a story (unproven) that Roman women were washing clothes in a tributary of the Tiber on Sapo Hill, below a religious site, where animal sacrifice took place. The clothes became very clean because of animal fat soaking through wood ashes and into the clay soil, which was then washed down river. Maybe just a story but soap was on its way for the Romans.

Apparently, the ruins of Pompeii from 79 AD revealed an entire soap factory. I don’t know if archaeologists would be able to tell what ingredients were used. I’d like to know! At least four baths were found there too. The Romans were renowned for their love of bathing. I may have some Roman genes …

The Greeks also knew about soap from the 1st century AD when they used lye and ashes to clean their pots and statues. But personal use of soap came later.

After the Fall of the Roman Empire in the 5th C AD, the tradition of bathing entirely disappeared from Europe – ( how could this be!) The baths they had built, for example in Bath, in England, unused, fell into decay. Poor hygiene helped to bring on a thousand years of uncleanliness, encouraging several waves of deadly plagues – most notably the Black Death in the 14th C. It was only much later that soap raised its sweet smelling head again.

Actually, the original soap made with animal fat smelled very unpleasant and the discovery of ‘Aleppo’ soap from the Middle East was a great improvement all round. This soap is still made there in the same way today and I bought some in the bazaar in Aleppo some years ago. The laurel oil gives it a slightly spicy, medicinal after note. It is muted green in colour, turning to brown with age.

As this soap slipped along the trade routes of the Silk Road and flowed along the Mediterranean by boat to the West, various changes happened. Soaps could then be made specially for bathing, shampooing and laundry.

This revolutionised personal hygiene in Europe – how did they manage without it all these years? Why did bathing fall out of fashion when the Romans left? It doesn’t bear thinking about!

Soap really was an important lifesaver used regularly. When I was a child, my father (a doctor), always said that washing hands with soap and hot water was a good preventative measure to keep the community healthy. I’ve always been keen on preventative medicine, maybe from listening to him.

Italy (Savona), France and Spain were keen to make their own type of soap, based on the ‘Aleppo’ soap. ‘Castile’ and ‘Marseille’ soap keep these names today from the places where soapmaking started on a major scale in Europe.

Both these soaps are made from pure olive oil and latterly from vegetable oils too in Marseille. They are renowned for their particular mildness. I have bought ‘Marseille’ soap in Provence and visited one of the factories where it’s made – a sight worth seeing. As well as olive oil, it included sea water and alkaline ash from sea plants. Soap for laundry had a different recipe from that for personal use.

soap both for laundry and personal use

Today I buy a soap called ‘Le Petit Olivier’, which has several fragrances and provides both bar and liquid forms. It is natural and completely biodegradable, reasonably priced and very mild.

liquid soap
soap factory – Salon en Provence

The region of Castile in Spain has an abundance of olive groves. They made a bar of soap which was also very mild and effective and in addition was pure white. This became extremely popular with the royal houses of Europe. But it took much longer before soap could be afforded by the general populace.

Even now, Castile soap is one of the best natural and biodegradable soaps on the market that can be manufactured by hand. It is used both for the body and laundry and doesn’t lose its potency after time. It is also used to bathe the sensitive skin of babies. Although there is a bar soap, much of it seems to be sold in liquid form today.

Britain was laggardly in offering soap to the general public. It was only made in the UK commercially from the mid 1800s.

The rich were able to buy soap before this but it was a luxury item and a ‘soap tax’ was even introduced between 1666- 1714, which meant it was even more out of reach for the majority of people. Maybe that’s where the phrase ‘the great unwashed’ comes from?

Today we have such a choice of soaps on the market and many types of ‘luxury’ soap are given as gifts. That doesn’t in the least suggest that the recipient needs to wash … !

The soap industry now extends into all sort of ‘health’ and ‘beauty’ products made for bathing and the bathroom.

‘luxury’ soap from Italy
exotic scents from Kew Gardens (does contain accredited palm oil)

Andrew Pears started making a high quality transparent soap in 1807 and his son-in-law opened a factory in Isleworth, London in 1862. Pears soap still exists today.

William Hesketh Lever and his brother James bought a small soapworks in Warrington in 1886 and founded what is still one of the largest soap businesses – formerly called Lever Brothers and now called Unilever. They have expanded into many different products.

B J Johnson was a soap company that changed its name to Palmolive because the name of the soap became so popular. However, today palm oil is beginning to be shunned in products for environmental reasons. The growing of palm oil plantations has led to the destruction of ecologically valuable rain forest.

Adding soap to water lowers the water’s surface tension. Making water molecules stick together less is what helps soaps clean clothes and other things more easily. I’m not a scientist but it’s worth exploring this side of soap/detergent.

Liquid soaps became available in the early 1900s, which made cleaning things other than skin, like clothing, floors and bathrooms, easier. This developed further into detergents, used in washing machines and dishwashers.

Most of us now use soap products every day of our lives and I realise how appalling it would be to live as we do now without this indispensable discovery! Of course, some people might argue with that – just keep a safe distance!

delicious fragrance

And with more and more emphasis on protecting the environment, we want a soap to be natural and biodegradable.

artisan ‘gift’ soap from Ireland

For everyday use, I like the soaps below, which can be bought in ‘Holland & Barrett’. Most organic soaps have paper packaging, which can be recycled – but not all as yet.

well priced and recommended

There’s a big revival for attractive, ethical, artisanal soaps with a vast choice of fragrances – a gift that doesn’t destroy our environment and is a treat to receive. I am a big fan. Soap lifts my spirits. I feel clean and pampered – and all from just something I can hold in the palm of my hand.

small orange ‘guest’ soap – Italy

Here’s a short list of eco soaps I have used and can recommend. There are many more of these ‘artisan’ (handmade) soaps to be discovered.

  • (Eric Renard and Xavier Padovani are founders of ‘Le Petit Oliver’ soaps).

Thank you to Wikipedia and ‘’ for being ‘soap’ mines of information.

The pleasures of using and giving soap


PS If you run out of toothpaste, soap is a great alternative!

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Working from home during ‘coronavirus’ lockdown has meant that toast and marmalade, which we usually only have for breakfast on Saturdays and Sundays has been added to our normal weekday fare of yoghourt with cereal, fruit and nuts.

Our best choice is ‘Duchy’, organic thick cut but we’ve had to cast around when that wasn’t on the shelves. There’s quite a difference in quality and I became interested in how marmalade came into being in the first place.

It seems that historically marmalade was made of quinces and the word comes from Portuguese – marmelada.

In 1524 Henry VIII received a ‘box’ of marmalade from a Mr. Hull of Exeter. This was probably solid quince paste from Portugal. It was often flavoured with rose water and musk, or ambergris, then cut into squares like Turkish delight and packed into boxes – hence Henry’s ‘box’.

Quince paste is still available – more popular on the continent – it’s an interesting addition to cheese and biscuits. I find it goes particularly well with Manchego cheese.

There’s a note in Samuel Pepys’s diary on 2nd November 1663. ‘Left Mrs Hunt and my wife making marmalett of quinces’. In England in the seventeenth century citrus fruits became more plentiful because of foreign trade.

In James Boswell’s book ‘The Life of Samuel Johnson’,(published 1791), there are various references to marmalade. In a letter he writes to Johnson, Boswell says, ‘My wife is much honoured by what you say of her. She begs you may accept of her best compliments. She is to send you some marmalade of oranges of her own making’.

Marmalade, as we know it today, is a sort of jelly consistency, containing the juice, pulp and citrus peel of oranges, lemons, limes or grapefruit – or a combination of two or three. I remember my mother making ‘three fruit marmalade’ for the RNLI every year – maybe 200 pots of it – sitting in serried ranks on the dining room table, ready for the stall on ‘Lifeboat Day’. She also made apricot jam, adding fresh apricot kernels, which was delicious.

The best marmalade is made with bitter oranges from Seville. Cooked with sugar, the taste is both sweet and sharp. The favoured ‘Duchy’ marmalade has a robust taste and the peel is satisfyingly thick, with lots of it.

Marmalade got its jelly quality rather than solid ‘paste’ by pulling it from the heat earlier. Using whole oranges, lemons and sugar with the acid of the lemons helping to create pectin, ‘sets’ the jelly. Nowadays, you can just add ‘pectin’.

The peel should be evenly distributed throughout the jar. To achieve this at home, you should leave the marmalade after its setting point to cool and thicken for fifteen minutes before pouring into the jars.

If you want to look further into marmalade, there are stories, (which are unproven), like the one of Keiller’s Dundee marmalade, which was the result of oranges taken from a shipwreck and made into marmalade, no doubt laced with sea water – or search for the (unproven) link with Mary Queen of Scots, ‘Marie est malade’. Go to Wikipedia, which is a mine of information.

Edmund Hillary took a jar of marmalade up Everest in 1953. Captain Scott took jars of it to the Antarctic in 1910. A solitary jar was found, buried in the ice, years later.

Fortnum and Mason used to sell marmalade in tins, rather than jars. Today they offer a wide range of flavours, including ‘kumquat’ and ‘rose petal’.

English and Scottish migrants took marmalade to Canada, where it remains popular – but it didn’t hit the spot in the U.S.

Paddington Bear always had a pot of marmalade in his brief case and sometimes a marmalade sandwich tucked under his hat to keep him going. Sadly, his creator, Michael Bond, died last year but the books and films survive – to the delight of both children and adults worldwide.

This photo might tempt you to sit down with toast and marmalade at breakfast time. Funnily enough, I never want to eat it at any other time of day.

marmalade made with bitter Seville oranges – delicious!

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Lockdown – a view from my study window

The weather in mid-April seemed to range from one extreme to another – damp and cloudy to bright, hot and sunny, still and serene, to windy, gusty and sometimes stormy grey, with raindrops obliterating themselves, almost like machine gun fire, at the window. ‘Coronavirus’ keeps me ‘safe’ at home and I watch these weather patterns, with a cup of black coffee for company.

You notice changes in the weather much more when you’re looking out at your garden all day, sitting at your desk watching the aeroplanes being substituted for flocks of crying seagulls, cooing pigeons, cawing crows, chittering magpies swooping here and there instead of the regular flow of heavy machines on course for Heathrow. One afternoon I looked up and as a member of the Cloud Appreciation Society, it made my day …

The beginning … mixed weather patterns
zooming down – clematis montana
cloud closing in …
like a giant dollop of Cornish ice cream

now sporting a jaunty cap

And then came a fierce gust of wind, followed by a flinging of raindrops in my direction, hitting the window with full force – and I caught them, reflected against the cloud.

raindrops are falling

Maybe I should be sending this on to The Cloud Appreciation Society! Anyway, it brought inspiration to my next writing project.

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Lisbon – trees, trams and tiles …in technicolour

Avenida da Liberdade – Lisbon
Praça Dom Pedro IV

We’re meant to be in Lisbon now, with trips to Sintra and Porto but all is lost, owing to ‘coronavirus’. My first ever visit to Lisbon wasn’t so long ago – so I’m re-engaging virtually.

This is a beautiful city on the River Tagus – which is very wide and rolls down into the Atlantic Ocean. We had a long weekend planned at the last minute, staying in a hotel just off the spectacular Avenida da Liberdade. My first impression of the city is of elegant, tree lined streets, extraordinary, tiled pavements and traditonally picturesque trams.

Trams of Lisbon

We arrive in mid-afternoon – in time to do some exploring – and find supper along the way. Lisbon has steep hills but also a vast, flat square down by riverfront, where people gather in companionable groups. It’s a stupendous sight … full of light … a wonderful introduction to what lies ahead …

Lisbon – Praça do Comércio
Lisbon riverfront at Praça do Comércio
Praça do Comércio
Lisbon – yellow tram
extraordinarily beautiful pavements

I’m besotted by all the tiled pavements, although they can be a menace if you’re wearing high heels – but I’m not. There’s also something seductive about a city by the sea and I’m being happily seduced.

criss-cross pavement
mysterious hieroglyphics …
‘knot garden’ pattern
the tiger’s lair
the red swimsuit and Jimi Hendrix
Lisbon – meet the aliens …
retreat to a quiet square
with an art shop

Roaming around has made us hungry. Behind the main streets are steep, stepped alleys. My eyes are drawn to this blossom, which, by chance, stands outside a restaurant.

Supper time
Lisbon – ghost tram

Night is now drawing in and a comfortable bed hovers like a mirage as we make our way back to the hotel.

Our bedroom is spacious, with a separate sitting area and a small balcony. There’s both a bath and a shower. Joy!

Downstairs, in the semi basement, is a beautiful pool – a glass wall opens out onto a terraced, tropical garden. I want to come here and swim every day. It’s very tranquil – only a couple of other people in evidence. The hotel is called PortoBay Liberdade.

We are awake early next morning and decide to take the metro out to the Aquarium, which is part of a huge modern complex, designed by Peter Chermayeff, on the bank of the Tagus. Blue skies, racing white clouds and ozone fresh air.

on the metro 1
on the metro 2
Lisbon ladies – where are you going?
Parque das Nações
new ideas …
sculpture welcoming clouds
Lisbon – architectural
Lisbon – the Aquarium

It’s fiendishly difficult to get a good photo inside an aquarium unless you have the right paraphernalia – not just a small camera. Below is my best shot. The aquarium is incredibly well looked after and used for a lot of ocean research too.

at the aquarium
outside the aquarium
Lisbon – out on the boardwalk
strolling …
…and time for a treat
before taking the metro back to ‘centre ville’

There’s an astonishing amount of ‘street art’ in Lisbon, some of it really brilliant, some feral, some gruesome, some just bad. We even come upon a blocked off ‘graffiti’ street. It reminds me a bit of ‘The Vaults’ near Waterloo station in London, except that it’s not underground. If you like that sort of thing, it’s worth exploring…

stir crazy
Lisbon – graffiti street
very ‘sixties’

The melodic and melancholic tones of ‘fado’ music entice us out for the evening, followed by a fish supper. ‘Fado’ enters my psyche. We buy some CDs before leaving.

searching for ‘fado’
making ‘fado’ music
fish restaurant
close up …
excellent ‘Vinho Verde’
a place to remember
homeward bound …

Exhausted … I embrace bed … slept like a log …

The Botanical Gardens are near the hotel and we make a quick tour. Our goal is to get to ‘Castelo de São Jorge’ today …

entrance to Botanical Gardens
palms galore ..
a rendezvous?

Then it’s ever onwards – across town to Alfama.

Alfama is the oldest part of the city with narrow, crooked streets winding their way steeply up towards the citadel.

Alfama – small square
Alfama – round square!
Alfama – street art
Alfama – Scooby-doo …
Alfama – picture framing shop

The hill up to ‘Castelo de São Jorge’ gets higher and higher. I’m not a mountaineer! I come upon a wall, showing photos of past denizens of Alfama, which I find very touching. This is the real old heart of the city.


A historic past brought to life by pictures of ordinary people who lived here … it’s a great idea to do this.

Alfama – old woman with broom …
wall of tiles
stairs to a secret garden … (ssh – I’m being nosy)
here lies a tale … ?!
entrance to the castle grounds
view of city from the castle – Alfama

The view of the city is panoramic. I feel so happy to be here, high up, in the fresh air. I now see why mountaineers need to reach the top!

view two …
Alfama – castle grounds
a wall!
strolling along the terraces …
inside the castle walls
Alfama – contemplation
haunting sound …

I don’t know what this musical instrument is but it’s sweet and deeply sonorous. There’s also some arresting street art near the entrance to the citadel. See below.

I notice an old outdoor urinal. Waited to see if anyone would use it – it brings back memories of 1960s Paris. Along with the palpable smell of garlic suffusing the metro.

On my first visit to Paris alone, when I was sixteen, I was intrigued and a little shocked to see the patterned metal, outdoor urinals, with heads and feet (only) in view.

My mother sent me to a lycée in the summer holidays, which led to a lot of exciting experiences – and did help me learn French. And I’ve loved going to France ever since.

She didn’t like ‘abroad’ so I’m forever grateful to her for sending me there. I think it was because she had a friend, who taught French at the local school.

Frenchmen seem to be less reserved than most Englishmen in this department. Over many years driving through France, we used to count the Frenchmen insouciantly ‘baring all’ at the side of the road, when the need arose.

no takers …
arresting street art …
Alfama – street sculpture? – spot the ‘kitkat’
gene genie

Starting the long trek downhill. A concatenation of brilliant colours …

sherbet yellow, pink, red, blue, green …

We eventually find ourselves at the ‘Museu de Artes Decorativas’, which includes an 18th century backgammon and chess table in rosewood.

entrance hall – Museu de Artes Decorativas

Lisbon is a wonderful city to explore by walking. We make our way parallel to the Tagus through small streets and alley ways. I am curious by nature and this is one of my favourite things to do in a city.

Lisbon – picture postcard
Lisbon – traditional dancers

I don’t know what the picture below signifies but Lisbon cuisine is very much about fish – which seems plentiful and is tasty.

ruby red
verdigris green
beatific blue …
yellow ochre

When I hear the word, Lisbon, I do see/think ‘yellow’. The days of the week I see in colour too. Some people have synaesthesia – a syndrome which means that words and numbers strongly conjure up the same colours/tastes all the time. You can take a test to see if you have this syndrome.

Lisbon – fish ‘kiosk’

There are quite a lot of these picturesque ‘kiosks’, which sell ‘take away’ fish dishes in the centre of Lisbon – often with a few tables and chairs outside. I like the look of them.

We’re almost back at Praço do Comércia. John reluctantly agrees to a photoshoot! I have to take it by reflection …

on holiday in Lisbon 2019

We’ve been walking for seemingly hours now (not complaining!) and I’m famished.

dizzy with hunger …

We could have a very late lunch but I am sidetracked by looking into the window of a bakery – immediate gratification! I wouldn’t pass the ‘marshmallow test’ at this moment …

‘immediate gratification’
These ‘hit the spot’ too …

Recovery …

man in black …
dog in black …
stars in black …
swirls in black

You can tell how fascinated I am by Lisbon’s pavements!

keeping going …
interesting – how do I get up there?
blowing in the wind …

I look at the European flag and I want to weep that my birthright of being European may be taken away from me. Brexit was the main topic last year, like ‘coronavirus’ is now … so … to drown my sorrows …

I went swimming in the hotel’s gorgeous pool, which I had all to myself. The air smells like the ocean. I am revived – for the moment… and the warm night draws in …

Lisbon glamour …

‘To sleep, perchance to dream …’

It’s already our last day, so we make an early start after breakfast. There’s an art gallery close by, opposite a statue of Fernando Pessoa, ( 1888 – 1935), a famous Portuguese poet and writer, translator, publisher and philosopher.

Fernando Pessoa 1888 – 1935
Carlos Botelho 1899 – 1982

A well known painter, illustrator, cartoonist and humorist, born in Lisbon.

contemporary art
bizarre … and disturbing … and unknown
the one that got away …
unknown but handsome …

Final decision made, after wavering as to where to go next. We’re taking the metro out to the Gulbenkian Museum, stopping en route at a patisserie, as it’s almost time for elevenses …

beguiling shopfront ..
odd one out ?

Emerging from the metro we can see the Gulbenkian Museum, but it means crossing innumerable roads and roundabouts to get there. It’s worth it!

Calouste Gulbenkian was born in Istanbul in 1869 – his family roots were Armenian. He became one of the richest men in the world as an oil magnate but he was also an avid art collector and philanthropist, living all over the world. His life story is fascinating. A lot of his private art collection is on show here. The building also houses contemporary exhibitions. It’s surrounded by lovely gardens, which are dotted with cafés and is a great place to visit. You can easily spend all day here.

Calouste Sarkis Gulbenkian 1869 – 1955
Calouste Sarkis Gulbenkian
Gulbenkian Museum – Lisbon
giant carpet – featuring oil pipes?
an extraordinary individual
Gulbenkian Museum – garden
Gulbenkian gardens – turtles – real ones!

There’s also a contemporary exhibition about mysteries of the brain, robots and language.

map of Indo- European languages
brainpower 1
brainpower 2
and then there was this octopus

I couldn’t help feeling that the tentacles of the octopus and the spread of the language map had similarities. Our brain travels in various different routes from birth, depending on who we are as an individual, where we came from, what we do and what happens to us in life.

And then there’s this astonishing individual, Calouste Sarkis Gulbenkian, who made the most extraordinary connections. He had a brilliant financial brain and made a lot of money, he loved art and collected more than 6,000 pieces and he also used the huge amounts of money he made to help others, funding schools and hospitals and scholarships. His international reach in the world is also somewhat like the tentacles of an octopus. Octopuses are known to be super intelligent …

In London, Gulbenkian built St. Sarkis Armenian church as a memorial to his parents and is buried there. In doing this, he wanted also to provide a place of ‘spiritual comfort’ and a gathering place for ‘dispersed’ Armenians. (Wikipedia).

I’m so glad to have visited this place and to have learned more about this man.

Portugal has always been a seafaring nation. Every morning we passed this nautical floor sculpture but I’m not sure of its provenance.

Lisbon – nautical floor sculpture

It gives me a chance to put in the pirate, who we also pass every day.

Black Jack
pirate ship – top right

But the fire engine is tempting … I know a little boy who would love that …

Time’s running out. We’re now waiting at the hotel for a taxi to the airport…

waiting for the taxi … under these graceful trees

I just had time to race down to the bakery to get the best ‘pastéis de nata’ in town … I hope I get them home in one piece.

the famous Portuguese ‘pastéis de nata’

Our short stay has been super enjoyable. I wasn’t to know then that ‘coronavirus’ would delay our return to Lisbon but at least there’s something to look forward to in the hope that the state we find ourselves in will be overcome in the not too distant future and we will be free to travel once again.

!Adeus !


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In the Pink

A surprising happening … my spiny cactus suddenly burst out with all these flowers …

Shocking pink!

Shockingly glorious! I love ‘pink’.

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Abbots Bromley – my old school, revived by the Chinese …

Revival of my old school, Abbots Bromley, by the Chinese – 2020

I was aged ten when I went to the boarding school of St Mary and St Anne, Abbots Bromley, in 1957. Seven years later, in 1963, I left to explore the world.

In July 2019, there was an article in ‘The Times’ about Abbots Bromley closing down. It had changed over the years from a school where pupils did ‘O’ and ‘A’ levels with a bent towards vocational careers, to a less academic establishment, which included dancing and horse riding. Way back then, we were five hundred girls in nine ‘houses’ – later, there were only 300 pupils and it was mixed. Then in July 2019 it was closed altogether at the end of the Summer Term.

I don’t know how much Abbots Bromley influenced me in later life but I’m amazed by how much I remember about it. I suppose it was a seven year stint – of what now seems a strange existence. Five hundred girls in a small village, otherwise known for its Morris Dancing – and especially The Horn Dance. This was performed in front of The Buttercross, an ancient monument close to ‘The Goat’s Head’ pub.

We wore these ‘wimples’ on our heads only on Speech Day in the summer. Otherwise, we had straw ‘boards’ (boaters). In Winter, a navy uniform with a white shirt and a tie whose colour showed what ‘house’ we belonged to. Mine was pale pink.

I envied the dark green one. Those belonged to ‘Crofts’ – a small ‘house’ which was in a very pretty building, covered in vines, in the village. I had a friend called ‘Jinx’ there and was sometimes invited for lunch, which was very cosy and ‘unschoollike’. Otherwise, ties were red, blue, purple, turquoise, orange, light green and yellow. A rainbow.

Coming and going – Speech day in the Summer Term
Abbots Bromley – the choir leading the procession on Speech Day

Abbots Bromley was one of the Woodard schools, set up by a clergyman. There was a lot of church going, which was High Anglican. One of the sixth formers swung the thurible, filling the church with the scent and smoke of frankincense and myrrh as she made her way to the altar, followed by the ‘boat boy’, who carried the aromatics in an oblong silver vessel. I would have liked to have been a ‘boat boy’ but this dream was never realised. But I did get to light and snuff out the three red sanctuary lamps in the chapel at Evensong.

My main memory of the chapel was fainting at First Communion and knocking over the whole row, who were praying on their knees. After I had been dragged out, following a terrible ruckus, I had to go and apologise to the headmistress, Miss Roch.

Luckily, I didn’t miss First Communion breakfast. We were given a beautiful bouquet of Easter flowers and a card showing Jesus, ‘The Light of the World’, painted by William Holman Hunt (1827-1910). I kept this in my hymnal, which we used every morning at School Prayers.

We sang both a psalm in plainsong and a hymn before the headmistress read out various events that were going on. I think it was in the Spring term that the whole school sang the ‘Benedicite’ in prayers. It had a strong rhythm and melody and we all sang our hearts out. It included God blessing all the animals and sea creatures and insects, which I liked.

Evensong, in the chapel, was on Wednesdays and Fridays, Compline was on Saturday evening. On Sunday morning we went in a crocodile line down to the church in the village, where the Chaplain was waiting to conduct the Morning Service. Then it was back to chapel in the evening for another Evensong.

The entry into the chapel had a lot of white marble, including the floors and a beautiful table, always decorated with a vase of fresh flowers. The cloisters gave onto the private gardens, belonging to the staff houses. We all had our favourite hymns and wrote notes of undying love to our friends on those pages. Forbidden, of course.

Lining up in the houseroom to go to chapel on a Sunday evening clashed with ‘The Top Twenty’ popular songs on radio. This was a precursor of ‘Top of the Pops’ on TV. But The Beatles were just about in evidence and becoming the talk of the dormitory.

Meanwhile, we also had to learn the Catechism, followed by a ‘collect’ every Sunday. In the afternoon we wrote our letter home, which was checked before sending. Our housemistress would pounce on somebody to stand up and recite the ‘collect’ by memory.

Our choir was in the hands of the glamorous Louella Harris and I still remember the beautiful swoops of the ‘Ave Verum’ and the ‘Kyrie Eleison’. Those of us who didn’t get into the choir (like me), were left with Miss Roadknight, whose determination to get us to sing as well as possible elicited a lot of spitting as she enunciated … nobody wanted to sit in the front row.

I was quite anxious when my parents dropped me off at the dark, oak panelled entrance to the school for the first time, leaving me to confront an unknown world as the old Austin disappeared down the driveway and turned out left into the road on its return home.

But a smiling face appeared. An older girl, Jennifer Fisher, greeted me and took two of us new girls for a cup of tea and a bun before accompanying us up to our dormitory. Matron had made up our iron bedsteads – she took our tuck boxes and locked them in a cupboard. Life at school began.


Miss Crawley-Boevey. She was deputy headmistress and taught Geography. She had some sort of contact with royalty and her brief included teaching us about sexual intercourse later on. She was a handsome figure.

The Honourable Xenia Pleydell-Bouverie. She was the games mistress who taught us lacrosse. I was left wing and did a lot of speeding up and down along the edge of the playing field. Miss Pleydell-Bouverie joined in the action, shouting ‘cradle’, ‘cradle’, as we tried to get the ball into a tiny triangular goal. She also came from an aristocratic family and it was said she’d run away from home to become a games mistress? I preferred netball (shooter) and rounders and tennis in the summer. We also played cricket and I enjoyed being ‘long leg’ in the long grass. So not very sporty really.

Mrs Atkinson. She taught ‘A’ level German (she was German) which I studied along with French. We read German literature (‘Wallenstein’ by Schiller and poetry) in the old fashioned script. Mrs. A was dramatically beautiful with a creamy complexion, dark curly hair that flowed over her shoulders and a slash of red lipstick. She was very different from the norm. One day she was late for our class – there were only six of us. She breezed in saying ‘Mein B-H ist kaput’. Her bra had snapped! We liked her a lot. Where did she come from, where did she go?

Mr Heald. A token man. He was a great Maths teacher, although it did take me five times to pass ‘O’ level Maths. Everyone clapped when I got the long longed-for result. Mr. Heald was full of enthusiasm, a favourite among us all.

Miss Hann. Our English teacher. She was under five feet tall and a purposeful character, discussing our essays with great pzazz. She taught me to love the Romantic poets and we pushed back the desks to act out Shakespeare. I was lucky to have her, as this was my best subject. In the sixth form, we were allowed to write our essays in the library, which was light and warm with French windows opening onto the garden. I wish I had made better use of it. The prefects’ Common Room was more tempting as we could make toast and tea and have a chat with the other heads of houses.

Miss Jesse.(known as Jezebel) She had been a pupil at the school. Her voice was unintelligible and she gave out many detentions. She sat at the front of the class on a high desk and we all got a detention for laughing when one of her stockings fell down. She also taught Girl Guides. One time we almost died of food poisoning after trying to cook sausages over a bonfire. Carbonised on the outside, raw within. I’ve never liked sausages since.

Mr Hensher was something else. The Chaplain became ill and he arrived to be the religious stand-in. He was tall and good looking but with strange, wide apart, eyes like marbles, which seemed to see through you. He taught us Divinity besides being our Chaplain and we were mesmerised as he talked about the dark clouds of the nether world.

He asked us to think of a flower without saying what it was, then he would go round the class, getting all our flowers right. We were agog. He finally organised us to go on a CND march to London one weekend and at that point he disappeared. I expect he was sacked.

Later on at university I opened a ‘News of the World’ Sunday paper. There was Mr. Hensher – a vicar in a country village with his black labrador, advertising for a wife who looked like Ingrid Bergman. The congregation were up in arms! He brought melodrama and excitement into our lives for a short time.

I liked biology but somehow didn’t crack Physics and Chemistry. We had an exciting lesson in Chemistry when Miss Underwood dropped a piece of sodium into water by mistake and it exploded everywhere. To add to the general pandemonium a girl who was rather glamorous and came from Zanzibar, fainted. We made pink soap and blue crystals but valences escaped me.

We also had a weekly lesson called ‘Human Biology and Hygiene’. This taught us how to look after our bodily selves and then progressed on how to run a house, have a hygienic kitchen, mend clothes, make beds (with so-called ‘hospital corners’), mop floors and perform basic first aid in case of accidents.

Unfortunately, cooking didn’t come into it for me. The choice was Latin or cookery. The two top forms did Latin and the third level got to cook and eat their own lunch every Wednesday in a modern cookery lab. We were all very envious!

I learned to cook later on – something I now do nearly every day – I have no use for Latin but I suppose it helped with French and German. I did enjoy Virgil’s ‘The Aeneid’ but Caesar’s Gallic Wars with their wretched earthworks drove me to distraction, as did the subjunctive. But I do love both Greek and Roman mythology. I later discovered that I love going out to restaurants instead of cooking all the time …

Some mothers sent birthday cakes in a tin by post and this was given out in slices to friends. I remember an iced cake covered in crystallised violets. Sprigs of real violets dipped into hot liquid sugar and left to dry. When you bit into them the remains of the petals could be seen.

There was a wonderfully old-fashioned art studio upstairs in an old barn but I just couldn’t paint, even though I loved colour. Miss Foster, who wore eclectic smocks, did have her favourites. She lived with the Head of Music, Miss Wadeley, who was in charge of a big, old fashioned music wing with separate rooms for practising piano.

The ‘cells’ all had names of famous musicians on the doors. Palestrina, Mendelssohn, Brahms, Beethoven, Liszt, Mozart etc. Miss W used to come and listen at the door to make sure we were practising. My sister turned out to be a very good pianist.

Matrons presided over the dormitories and generally oversaw hairwashing, bathing, mending and shoe cleaning. Head matron, Miss Jones, who treated our ailments, was known as Kipper Feet, due to the way she walked. Her lair was in Doctor’s Room. Sore throats had to make a line. She had a long paintbrush which was dipped in a jar of sticky, black liquid and painted our throats one by one. What was it? I didn’t ask. We got better.

Miss Metcalfe handed out clean sheets each week from the ‘hot cupboard’ and kept a watchful eye on the tuck boxes, which were in another locked cupboard, opened by her once a week.

For some reason she refused to let us have our sweets one week, so two of us locked her in the hot cupboard, which was actually a small room. She did manage to call for help in the end and we were all called together in the houseroom and asked who had done this. Nobody told. There was a unbreakable sense of solidarity.

Each table in the dining room had a teacher or prefect in the middle. We had to make conversation with her so as not to get a bad table grade. At the same time we were not allowed to ask for, say jam for our bread – somebody had to ask you if you wanted some and then pass it to you. If you failed to make sure your neighbour had all she wanted, that meant another black mark.

Meanwhile, bacon on fried bread, which I loathed, was being clandestinely pushed behind the radiator. Semolina pudding was for seconds – one day I found a bluebottle in mine, so I couldn’t bear ‘seconds’ any more. We were meant to eat everything – so nobody had allergies then?!

My sister was in the choir and they were sometimes asked to sing at weddings. If they got back late at night, they had to come in through the dining room, crunching cockroaches underfoot. This haunts her still. I suppose all that food that fell on the floor ‘by mistake’ made up a banquet for ‘creatures of the night’.

We had two baths a week, which I looked forward to, especially in the Winter. There were no doors on the bathrooms and Matron would come and check that all was well and that we hadn’t used too much hot water. I filled it up after she had left.

In the sixth form, we were allowed to go in threes for a bicycle ride. One day we came upon a dead fox and extracted its teeth. I kept this long canine tooth in my pocket and would polish it from time to time. Sometimes on our rides we would get as far as Uttoxeter and find a café which served fish and chips and mushy peas – much preferable to school dinners. We became bolder.

The playing fields were enormous. Each morning we ran around them before breakfast and got back in time to turn our mattresses before the gong went. There was five minutes before the second gong. If you were late, you got another bad mark. You were not meant to run down the corridors … a no-win situation!

We did go to Stratford-upon-Avon a number of times in a coach to see Shakespeare’s plays, which was a great treat. We also went to Wimbledon one year as the father of one of the girls was a vicar whose parish was near the tennis courts. He supplied us with delicious bowls of strawberries and cream in his garden afterwards.

There is a fantastic photograph by Jane Bown of schoolgirls at Wimbledon in the 1950s. It was shown in ‘The Observer’ on 23.06.19 as ‘The big picture’. It’s a perfect photo to show how we were about to experience a great cultural shift. How ‘the teenager’ was about to appear and change the lives of young people like us. Do look it up. Life outside of Abbots Bromley beckoned … but we didn’t yet know quite what was in store …

Meanwhile, there were films (set up in the gym) some weekends. We swooned over Gregory Peck, Kenneth More, Richard Todd, Humphrey Bogart … I think it was then I fell in love with David Niven in ‘The Guns of Navarone’ but I rather fell for Gregory Peck too.

‘Lassie’ (the dog) was a hit. Alec Guinness was in ‘The Ladykillers’, ‘Kind Hearts and Coronets’ and ‘Bridge on the River Kwai’. Cary Grant in Hitchcock’s ‘North by North West’. ‘The Lady Vanishes’ with Margaret Lockwood – another Hitchcock. ‘Brief Encounter’ with Celia Johnson and Trevor Howard made us aware of the trials and tribulations of forbidden love …

We wept for Richard Todd and his black labrador in ‘The Dam Busters’. Romantic films with sex scenes, though, were few and far between. I think we got to see ‘South Pacific’ with smoothie Rossano Brazzi. I definitely remember ‘Casablanca’ – wet handkerchiefs all round. I identified strongly with Ingrid Bergman and she just blew me away. Life after school – it was all to play for …

One time I had ‘flu so badly, I was sent to the ‘San’, which was hidden behind trees at the bottom of the tennis courts. It seemed as if I was in solitary confinement as the only person I saw was ‘Sister’ in her white coat, who brought me subsistence meals.

I found a shelf of books as I began to get better. They were all Agatha Christies and I read every single one. Perhaps that’s why I like Agatha Christie. She had an interesting life herself and I recommend her account of accompanying her husband, Max Mallowan, on his archaeological trips to the Middle East. She had a very self deprecating and dry sense of humour.

Each year we made things for the bazaar. We knitted hats and gloves and teapot cosies and sewed furiously, but the main stall was lampshades, made with raffia woven on a steel frame into intricate patterns. For some reason, they were very popular.

I can’t help thinking of ‘Molesworth’ in this context. The book ‘Down with Skool’ by Geoffrey Willans, wonderfully illustrated by Ronald Searle, has a character in it called ‘Grabber’ who is ‘skool captane of everything and winner of the Mrs Joyful prize for rafia work’. I think the proceeds of all of this industrious toil were sent to deserving charities with a religious bent.

Our parents were allowed to visit us twice a term. We could take a friend out. My mother often brought the lunch from home and we ate it from the back of the car, overlooking the Blithfield Reservoir, near Bagot’s Wood. We finished off with tea in a thermos flask. It wasn’t very relaxing and sometimes the weather was bleak and cold. Somehow I felt school was school, home was home and it was best not to mix the two. But she did make a great lunch in difficult circumstances …

I had gone to ballet classes before I started school but now we learned the waltz, the quickstep and the foxtrot – did we try the tango? I don’t remember.

No boogie-woogie, no twisting by the pool, no jiving (I do wish I’d learned to do this). And certainly no jitterbugging. That was all to come. I was one of the taller girls, so I always had to play ‘the man’, which I found awkward when I had to do it the other way round. One girl’s mother sent her a pair of ‘kitten heels’, which we all drooled over.

In the sixth form at the end of the Autumn term, there was a dance at a nearby boys’ school – Denstone. Our mothers sent us suitable dresses and shoes for the occasion. I expect we looked frumpy. Partners were chosen by putting one of our shoes in a pile in the centre of the room and the boys picked one they liked. Disaster.

Repton was another favoured boys’ school, which I found rather more engaging. Boys were allotted a girl’s name and had to write to us beforehand, introducing themselves. We got quite excited but my boy wrote to me a few days before the dance to say he had been expelled.

My mother had sent me a green, silk dress with capped sleeves, which she had made. I thought it made me look like a water nymph – (sadly mistaken, no doubt). See ‘Hylas and the nymphs’ – painting by Waterhouse (1849-1917). One girl’s mother had sent lipstick, which we all borrowed … it was called Pink T.N.T.

Our coach arrived at Repton and I had no partner. Matron said I could sit with her in the dance hall. Each boy held up a board with their girl’s name on it as we got out of the bus. Then I saw my name. Somebody had made sure I wasn’t to be alone all evening.

And the boy was tall and handsome with a big smile. We were not meant to leave the dance hall and our partner had to have a dance with Matron. After this, he asked me if I’d like to go for a walk in the grounds. We had a lot of fun, only curtailed by one of the Masters spotting us and sending us back. I was very popular for a day or two recounting my adventures and it was a great boost to my confidence.

I still have one of those long school photographs of everybody – girls and staff. It was taken on the tennis courts. But I only know one girl from Abbots Bromley now.

For all these seemingly odd and pointless rituals that we went through, I did develop a sense of responsibility towards others and a consciousness about what was right and wrong.

We were taught to always think of others before ourselves. This was good in some ways but somebody was complaining in the paper the other day that ‘coronavirus’ had changed her into a fifties housewife. I completely understand this. Family life is more balanced today in that women do have more opportunities but there’s still some way to go. And if you have been instilled with a certain mindset, it’s difficult to change. But the next generation have more chance.

The strong religious element of Abbots Bromley never quite captured me. I feel more pantheistic than anything and always did. Maybe that’s why I ended up married to an environmentalist.

Churches were often built on the sites of old temples to the sun. The number of different religions is enormous but they seem also to instigate violent wars against one another. Without the sun and water and the right sort of balance and temperature, we simply wouldn’t exist anyway. But living life within an infrastructure is quite helpful and that can be religion for some. Formal religion didn’t work for me, although I am not totally against it. I loved singing ‘And did those feet in ancient time’… on Speech Day. Horses for courses …

Above all, Abbots Bromley had a good heart and probably turned out many girls who made a difference to a sometimes challenging world. It made me independent and able to look after myself in the years to come – and instilled a strong streak of common sense to overcome adversity.

I wouldn’t have written about my school except for the fact that first it was closed down and now is about to be re-opened by the Chinese. I am curious to know what will happen next. Maybe we should be singing, ‘And did those Chinese feet in modern times …’?

I’m happy to have tried to make some sense of those seven years. I thank my parents for trying their best to give us an education that would stand us in good stead for life ahead. They gave it their best shot. They can’t be held responsible for the outcome.

My ‘board’‘Edwardian’ trendy?

Recommended books about the 1950s :-

‘Perfect Wives in Ideal Homes’ – the story of women in the 1950s by VIRGINIA NICHOLSON

‘The Fun of the Fifties’- Ads, Fads and Fashion by ROBERT OPIE

‘The Best of Times’ – Growing up in Britain in the 1950s by ALISON PRESSLEY

‘The Hulton Getty Picture Collection – 1950s’ – NICK YAPP


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