My mother was 93 on Wednesday. She still lives on her own, does the Telegraph crossword without breaking sweat and makes a raspberry pie that reduces a noisy family dinner to silent, absorbed wonderment.
She is 5ft 2 ins, with piercing blue eyes, and not all the dark has gone from her hair. In 1939, aged 19, she was called up by the Army, where she became a truck driver and the best mechanic in her platoon. Later, as a mem sahib in colonial Malaya, during the Emergency when British ex pats were being murdered by desperate rebels, she was once asked what she would do if a gang attacked her house while my dad, a civil engineer, was up country. She replied, ‘I’d take David’s service revolver and lock myself in the bathroom with the boys (my brothers, then toddlers) and shoot the first person who came through the door.’
So, there she is, 60 or so years later, in her flat, with me and my daughter Rose, aged 16, playing Scrabble. She is winning, of course.
Rose discovers she hasn’t got quite the right set of letters for the word she wants, and says, ‘Bugger.’
My mother looks at her in shock. ‘Rose! That’s a terrible word to use. I don’t like to hear young girls swearing, Or anybody swearing for that matter. It’s not nice. It’s really not nice. Don’t let me hear you say that again.’
Rose looks down at her tiles. ‘Sorry, grandma.’
I look in amazement at my mother. For once, I have to speak up. ‘How can you possibly complain about Rose saying “bugger”, when you told me just now you could put “wank” on the triple word?’
My mother looks at me with a mixture of shock, confusion and embarrassment. ‘That’s quite different,’ she says at last, recovering her hauteur. ‘I would have got a very good score with wank.’
One last thing. Please don’t tell her I’ve written this. She may never make me raspberry pie ever again.
Took my brother to the Tower of London this week. I didn’t leave him there, though, although the idea occasionally popped into my head. No, he’s ok, really. I’ve forgiven him for trying to decapitate my teddy bear in a door when I was five. He and his wife, now fully paid up Canadians, had never been to the Tower, and I have to say, it didn’t disappoint.
It can be a weird, sad place on an autumn day; it doesn’t matter how many tourists there are, it always seems a bit empty. My sister in law had imagined it was going to be an enormous black tower, but it’s actually a Norman hall built by William the Conqueror in 1078, surrounded by houses and rooms built or once occupied by every king and queen that has swashed and swished through a Hollywood movie.
There was the Tudor house built for Anne Boleyn where she stayed before her wedding to Henry VIII (and where she was taken before her execution), there was the room where the Earl of Leicester, Robert Dudley, later the favourite of Elizabeth I, scratched his name in the mantlepiece, and from the window, saw his dad taken out to be beheaded; and there were the Crown Jewels, with diamonds as big as ostrich eggs, and the cloth-of-gold cape that the Queen wore for her coronation. Eat your heart out, Fifty Cent.
We had the guided tour by one of the Yeoman Warders who was witty and well informed, and whose former life as a Army warrant officer meant that even people on the fringes of the crowd around him could hear every single word he said.
And then we just poked about in a rather leisurely way. All of us were fired by different things. My sister in law was amazed by the beauty of the buildings. My daughter was rather taken with the gold punch bowl that could take 150 bottles of wine and was big enough to have a bath in.
I was blown away by the fact that the oak pillars in William the Conqueror’s White Tower had probably been acorns about 700 AD, but my brother was still ruminating about his discovery two days later. ‘Did you know,’ he announced to some rather startled looking relatives at a family dinner. ‘Katharine Howard had the block taken to her room, so she could practise having her head chopped off. So she could practise. I mean, it’s not like if you get it wrong you can do it again.’
Tell that to my teddy bear, bro.
My brother and his wife flew over on Saturday from Canada for a week, and we planned a big family lunch on Sunday. So what I did I immediately do? Of course, I decided to repaint my office and put shelves up (actually, I just bought the shelves and my husband put them up at ten past midnight on Saturday). Why do I do this to myself, and my family? My best friend told me it’s displacement. But it’s not as if I ignore the main issue (christenings, landmark birthdays, big get togethers, whatever), I just need suddenly feel the need to achieve something else as well.
I simply can’t be constantly tidy and organised. My mother told me life was too short for housework, and I’m with her all the way. Asthma sufferers really shouldn’t attempt any spot check of my house. But give me a date for an occasion, and the day before, germ warfare breaks out. Not to mention, Fixing Stuff.
Last Christmas, my son announced he was bringing his new girlfriend to stay. Suddenly, the spanner, that had doubled as the shower switch for three years, was replaced with a proper plastic knob. This weekend, my husband, without me having to say anything, got the step ladders out, and sorted out the main light in my office, which has not worked for two years.
Today, the family arrived. Everything was spotless. Dinner was great. And nobody looked at my lovely new office, which was just as well, because the lights have gone again. But it doesn’t matter, I expect I’ll get my husband to mend them on Christmas Eve, while I’m stuffing the turkey and redecorating the hall.
My husband had a dog when I met him. I don’t mean I met my husband for coffee at Sainsbury’s or somewhere and he just had this random dog; I mean before I married him. The first time I met the man who would become my husband. That’s better. Anyway, he had a dog, Carly, a little black collie cross who was possibly the most intelligent dog I have ever met. She never needed a lead, even in London. I remember going into the Nisa supermarket on Queensway, and Steve told her to sit outside and wait. I hadn’t known him long, and I was a bit dubious about this, especially on such a crowded street, but he was confident so in we went. It was as we were at the checkout that we became aware there was a crowd outside the doors to the shop, the kind of crowd you get round a really good street performer, and they were making quite a lot of noise; laughing and clapping. The people in the supermarket pressed against the windows to see what was going on and there was Carly sitting neatly on the pavement, as we had left her, but now surrounded by a semi-circle of admirers. As we watched she stood up and walked to the doors, which automatically opened. This obviously confused and bothered her, so she backed off and sat down. After a few seconds, she tried again, the doors opened and she retreated. And then she tried again. To all the world it looked as if she were playing with the doors.
Shortly after the three of us moved in together (that’s me, Steve and Carly, in case you were wondering) there was a knock at the door one Sunday afternoon and outside were some kids with a black scruffy dog.
‘We brought your dog back,’ said one of the kids.
‘That’s not my dog,’ said Steve. But he took her in anyway. She was too thin to ignore. Jazz, as we called her, had black curly hair, a black curly tail, soulful brown eyes and the kind of breath that would strip paint. She crapped all over the house, ate margarine by the tubful, and peed herself every time she got told off. She loved travelling in cars, especially when she could sit on the back seat, lean on the door, and hook her paw through the arm rest.
She liked to lick newly hatched chicks too, but when they got a bit older, the way she gazed at them became rather calculating, and you could see they were beginning to look less like weird feathered puppies and more like dinner.
Then Megan arrived. She was en route to Battersea Dogs Home with a guy I worked with, when he brought her into the office and I took her home. Jazz’s immediate reaction was to growl at this new upstart, but when Carly, rather stiff-legged and grey by now, went up to make friends, Jazz changed her mind and adopted the new puppy. This meant that Megan was washed rather more than she would probably have liked, and each time she attempted to do some exploring was brought back to safety by a heavy black paw.
Megan was patient and loving and when children arrived, extremely self-effacing. When toddlers attempted to stick their fingers up her nose, or tried eat her dinner, she would simply go and sit behind the sofa. When our daughter got to the age where she wanted to climb stairs, she and Megan became partners in crime. As we would all too soon discover, Rose would undo the bottom stairgate, grasp hold of Megan’s collar, and carefully and patiently Megan would help her up the stairs. Once at the top, Rose would reach over and unbolt the top stairgate, and then they could split up, Megan for a comfy snooze on our bed, while Rose would make a beeline for her sister’s bedroom and her box of paints, which she would happily daub all over her face and arms, before she too climbed on to the bed for a cuddle with Megan.
But Carly got cancer, and when the vet came round to put her to sleep she yelped like a child as the needle went in. Even the vet, a brisk kind girl, was shaken by this. Then Jazz got ill, and eventually I had to give in to reality and call the vet for her, too. This left Megan, who had been so patient while we absorbed ourselves with our children. She was ecstatic, after those first couple of years, to once more be taken out for proper long walks, and I’m glad we made the time for her, when I think of how she died, as self-effacingly as she had lived, on the floor of my office one Saturday morning, with her head in Rose’s lap.
We’ve had dogs since. We have two now. But I still miss those three. I miss them following me everywhere. I miss Jazz. Sometimes I see a black hairy dog in town, and it looks so like her I have to go up and stroke it. But of course, it’s not Jazz and never will be. No paint stripper breath, you see.
So there we have Shakespeare scratching away at Hamlet, sucking the end of his quill for inspiration, when he suddenly throws it down in disgust (possibly because he was sucking the wrong end) and says something like, ‘I wish I’d never started this bloody play. Everybody’s heard this story a thousand times before, the characters are all completely out to lunch, and every time I think this is it, I’m going to get Hamlet to do something at last, he bottles out. Why can’t I write like Kit Marlowe? He’s much better than me.’
I teach a creative writing class, and every person in that class thinks that everybody else is better than them. I make them read their stuff aloud, you see, because it’s the quickest way I know of improving . Instead of thinking, oh well, I can just write any old nonsense, because only Elaine will read it, they now realise they have to please an audience of their peers; that they have to entertain or at least be thought-provoking.
The trouble is, I hadn’t bargained for them getting depressed by the quality of each other’s work. So this week I think I’m going to have to point out the positive side of being a listener. First off, you get new ideas on how to construct sentences, on how to describe things. One of my students introduced a real sense of rising tension in her work, simply by showing what other people were saying to the main character, and not having the main character speak at all. Another described an anorexic character simply by the way she whispered (and I can still see her in my mind’s eye almost a week later). Another nailed the description of a hot nervous night by putting her character in a car with no air conditioning where the windows wouldn’t open, and another put over a family relationship very neatly by having one member arrange all the chairs in a particular way, only to have them moved aside by all her relations.
Of course I’m not suggesting plagiarism, but there is nothing new under the sun, and we are all inspired by other people. I must go now. I’m planning a 21st century Hamlet, with an anorexic Ophelia, set during a heatwave at the South Mimms services on the M25. Gertrude keeps moving all the chairs, and Fortinbras is going to drive a truck through a plate glass window. Hmm. Actually… that might work. Thanks, everybody.
Tony was our chief sub on the weekly paper. He wore jeans with a crease down the front and a shirt with no tie, which was quite daring in those days. If he had a question about your copy he would stand behind you, while you were typing or on the phone, and wait. Not in an obsequious, I’ll just wait for your convenience kind of standing, but an I’m here, I’m God, you have done something terrible, and I will make you squirm, kind of way. Subs are always like that, I know, I was one.
Anyway, the possibility of having Tony standing behind you, with your copy in his hand, was frightening enough to make sure that we checked our stuff over and over again. Had the jury been sent out while the judge was making these remarks? And if so why was I risking a prison sentence for contempt by quoting him? Why was there no age for Mrs Snetterton, who had won the iced buns challenge in the Disley produce fete? How did I know that the mayor hated mice? And so on. Every statement had to be backed up with a quote from a real person (none of this, a source close to, that you see so often today). Every story had to check out, or Tony would spike it, and that would be that.
Of course what we had absolutely no control over, were the headlines. Tony liked a pun, Dave, who smoked a pipe and stroked his moustache a lot, was fond of twisting biblical phrases. Thus, every week you would be sure to find fete accompli over some picture of a garden party, or perhaps, amazing Grace about the musical talents of some six-year-old girl who had won a piano contest (which was ok if her name was Grace).
Editing copy was one thing, but it wasn’t until I got to an evening paper, as a sub myself, that I really began to appreciate the difficulties of writing headlines. First, obviously, it had to fit. You might be able to shave some of the space between the letters, but you couldn’t shrink the type. And it had to make sense. And it wasn’t to be boring. Unless the editor suggested it.
The search for a perfect headline has always led to some bizarre places. You get so into what you think you are saying, that you don’t always appreciate that your readers might see your headline in a completely different way. Pity the poor sub who wrote Queen Mum can’t come, and Burglars in below empty flat. Then there’s the famous World War Two offerings of Monty flies back to front, or English thrust bottles up the Germans. And I’ve always had a soft spot for Father of 10 shot – mistaken for a rabbit.
On the nationals the search for a perfect headline often became rather surreal. Vince, on one tabloid that prided itself on its high quality subbing, would lie almost full length on the subs table with arms outstretched, as if he were listening for trains, and mutter possible combinations of words to himself. Another bloke I worked with would, if in difficulty, go for a pee and write on the wall. Perhaps it was he who crept intothe ladies, and wrote under the towel dispenser,(an Advance Towelmaster) and be recognised.
Meanings were stretched to impossible lengths, but on occasion genius flared. Who can forget (well quite a lot of people actually, ed) the glorious line on the story about a couple who lost all their luggage on the way to their honeymoon in the Seychelles? Just a sarong at twilight. Of course. Or, the picture of a Native American, in full dress, complete with feather war bonnet, newly arrived in London and hailing a black cab. The headline was Where to, chief? Isn’t that brilliant? I always thought there ought to be a sub deck of him replying either, Bow, or Harrow.
But the prize for the most fabulously tasteless and bang on the money headline has to go to the now defunct News of The World. The executives were grumbling about the fact that the latest picture of one of the Kray twins in prison was rather boring, because it was just him having a cup of tea and a chocolate digestive. That was until a passing sub looked at it and said, ‘I could murder another McVitie.’
I met up with some old mates on Wednesday. They’d got some amazing 50p deal for return train tickets from London and they wanted to see the new Birmingham Library (biggest goddam library in Europe, y’know) and have tea and a gossip.
Years ago, when we met up, it would always be at Joe Allen in Covent Garden and we would drink lunch for so long that the waiters would go off shift and we would have to open an evening tab. The day would generally end with one of us catching the wrong bus (a number 44 to Tooting, if memory serves) and the rest ending up somewhere really odd, like the knicker department at John Lewis, or the conservatory of a complete stranger’s private penthouse in Marylebone. This never really boded well for our arrival at work the next day, still in the same clothes and with raging headaches, to face a barrage of thundering typewriters and a newsroom in full swing.
But we’re ladies of a certain age now. We get hot flushes, and we start sentences and stop in the middle because we can’t remember what we were talking about. We have conversations about what happened to ‘whatsername, you know, the small dark girl with the funny nose who was having an affair with that hairy bloke on features, the one who liked marmalade smeared on his chest’ And strangely enough, we all know what we’re talking about. At least I think we do.
So off to Birmingham. And the first place we went to was the Pen Museum. Which is now, officially, my favourite museum. First off, it ticks all the boxes for people of a certain age, with short attention spans and who are careful with their money; it is tiny and it’s free.
It is on the site of an old pen factory, so you get to it through a wrought iron gate, across a cobbled yard, and into a high-ceilinged Victorian room with small-paned windows. It’s filled with old oak display cases and it smells like the library where my mother worked in the 1960s. I was particularly taken with the sink in the corner with its wooden draining board and the yellow and green 1950s tea caddy, until I realised that it was not a display, but actually where the curators (all volunteers) make their tea.
The museum is cram jammed with stuff, lots of pen nibs (there’s a surprise) some of them arranged in extraordinary patterns (you have to be quite nerdy to like pen nibs) and machines to make them, and amazing bits of social history. The girls who made pen nibs in Birmingham in the 1800s, each made something like 36,000 every day, and got paid about 6d; that is, moving the lever on a machine, by hand, 36,000 times. I managed one, very wonky pen nib in about 10 minutes. Mind you, I was having a laugh while I was doing it.
There was even an example of Pitman shorthand, with the translation next to it (Sir Isaac Pitman lived in Gloucestershire, so I suppose the museum just scooped him in as being a sort of a Midlander). The three of us bent our heads over this, and looked at each other in some confusion. ‘That’s not the outline for Birmingham,’ said Deborah. ‘Is that supposed to be remember?’ said Sue. Turns out that this shorthand was the original kind, not the New Era sort that we all had to learn as junior reporters. The lad who was showing us around (who was a big fan of fountain pens, apparently) looked at us all rather kindly. ‘So you know shorthand,’ he said. ‘Did you all used to be secretaries?’
One other thing about the museum, American author Washington Irving wrote Rip Van Winkle there, in 1817. He was on a visit to his sister Sarah, who was married to owner of the factory, and who lived in a flat above the works.
We went to Birmingham Library next. It’s only just opened, and it is spectacular inside. Imagine the reading room at the British Museum writ seven storeys high, with moving, neon lit, walkways criss-crossing the well in the centre. The roof garden is well thought out, with raised beds and a café area which I expect will be lovely when the sun shines and the wind drops. The lift to the Shakespeare Memorial Library was frankly the most terrifying thing I’ve ever seen – a small perspex tube like you get in a hamster cage, overlooking the deep central well. Apparently the library has some really good collections, and a Shakespeare first folio, but the atmosphere of the place was more like an airport than a library. We did have lunch in the end; tea and sandwiches by the roof garden (no drink or bad behaviour today), but every minute or two our conversation was interrupted by ‘Bing bong, bing bong, bing bong, would the IC please report to reception.’ After five minutes of being unable to hold any kind of a conversation, and being in no way wiser as to who or what IC was, there was another announcement. ‘Bing bong, bing bong, bing bong, would IC please note, they are no longer needed at reception.’
It was good to catch up with my friends. I loved the pen museum. I liked the fact that the ‘shop’ was crammed in a corner, and the ‘café’ was one table. I liked being able to sit down at an old, old table and mess about with pens and ink to my heart’s content. I loved the enthusiasm of the curators, because without it you’d never feel the drama of a pen nib’s history. The library? Well, it’s the biggest in Europe, you know.
My next door neighbour was, I think, a fully paid up member of that dying breed – the British eccentric. Every morning, Mr P.,as I shall call him, came out of his decaying house (or his gentleman’s residence, as he liked torefer to it) and stood, in his pyjamas and dressing gown on his front lawn ready to torment the dog next door. This dog, a friendly enough Jack Russell, belonged to Vi, a sturdy widow, who had no time for Mr P. Not surprising, really, given that as soon as Mr P spied the dog he would start skipping up and down, waving his walking stick and hooting loudly. The dog, Muffy by name, after a second of startled staring, would then hurl herself at the fence, barking and howling with increasing frenzy, until Vi came out to get her.
‘I keep telling you Mr P, you’re driving my dog mad! You’re not to do this!’ said Vi, gathering the squirming dog into her arms, and glaring at our neighbour.
But Mr P would simply lean on his walking stick, look at her kindly and say, ‘It has to be done, Mrs Dillon. Has to be done. I’m training her to attack burglars.’
Which was all very well until the day he had to call on Vi, and Muffy bit him in the leg.
Once upon a time, in some far flung place, the local paper decided to do a feature on what the great and the good would like for Christmas. The first person they rang was the British ambassador, who after deep thought, told them what he would most like was a pair of slippers and a nice bottle of sherry. Imagine how the poor man felt, when he opened up the paper a few days later and saw that the French ambassador and the US ambassador had put at the top of their lists, world peace and an end to starvation.
I’m with Our Man in the British Embassy. It’s not that I don’t want global peace or an end to starvation, it’s just that there ought to be room in our lives for tiny pleasures, and that we shouldn’t mock them. In any case, you can’t really compare the big issues with the small stuff. A new world order is one thing, but on a cold morning, radiator pants are unbeatable.