Wasting Money on Books.

Our house was short of words.
There were only newspapers, prayer books and bibles,
and that was it. Nowt else.
The Daily Sketch, The Weekly News,
The Sunday Express, Reveille, Titbits,
secular comics, bolstered by the word of God,
as seen in the church magazine
and the familiar thees and thous
of the Kings James version.
Cereal boxes, instruction labels,
seed catalogues, advertisements,
I read them all.
It was not enough.
There was a strange and hostile world out there
and I needed to find a way through it.

My mum frowned at the sideboard
which I was filling up with stories and hope.
“You don’t want to waste your money buying books.”
I was leaving home in my head,
leaving her behind, and she knew it.
Biffo the Bear was safe enough,
Enid Blyton at a push,
but the defiance of Nancy Blackett
and the superiority of the posh girls
eating Kaffee und Kuchen
in the hallowed portals of the Chalet School
were a threat.
Giving me big ideas.
Showing me secrets.
Something had to be done.

I was taken to see my teacher.
I was in trouble.
“She won’t stop reading.”
“I can’t keep up with her.”
I knew that I was being told off
and I wondered if I would have to stop.
Maybe it was wrong?
It was definitely odd.
Nobody else in our house read books
and they had to put a stop to it
before the house was full of them.
But Mr Naylor didn’t say that.
He said something that nobody had thought of,
something strange and different.
He talked about a library in York.
You could take away four of their books
and bring them home.
Four!
Every single week.
Four!

My mum took me that weekend.
Whoa!
It was a palace full of books
and I lapped up the words
that streamed out,
hugging them close
all the way to my Granny Esther’s.

My mum thought that she had won,
only she was too late.
I had already discovered that books
could belong to me.
Taking them back was not an option.
The cupboards kept filling up.
The words were winning.
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The Only Child.

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I was an only one.
A loner, a watcher, a thinker,
loved, but misunderstood.
I befriended flowers,
helped bumblebees to fly
and mourned dead birds.
Other people remained strangers to me
but I understood my pets.

An only child walks their own path.
They are the still centre of their own world,
not spoiled, not selfish,
but grounded in their own being-
a strong tower of solitude.
What should they do but watch and consider?
Where should they go but home?
Who else should they be but themselves?

Creativity is watered by seclusion.
Time spent learning how to be
safe in your own company
ensures that you will never be alone.
The ability to please yourself
and remain comfortable in the far reaches
of your own imagination
will last for a lifetime.

An only child is a gift to themselves.

The Girl on the Wall.

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For decades you looked out calmly from the wall
of a room that was frozen in time.
rarely visited,
never spoken of,
kept for Sundays.

All through my childhood as I learned and grew,
you watched as I took my time for granted.
perfectly serene,
gently composed,
safe from harm.

You looked enough like me to make me wonder,
although I knew that I should never ask,
lost in a half smile,
bow perfectly placed,
pinafore pristine white.

Everything else about you has been forgotten,
only a single image moves on through time,
your favourite games,
your special times,
the sound of your voice………..

all gone.

You have seen me muddle my way through a lifetime
while you waited behind your wall of dusty glass,
wasting chances,
taking opportunities,
snatching advantages.

Still and silent you are my eternal sister,
left behind while I move on to count the years.
You do not judge,
you do not feel pity,
you do not mourn or laugh.

The great aunt
who never grew up.

A snatched moment from life on the farm.

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There are photographs like this one hidden away in tattered albums or pushed to the back of drawers in houses all over the country. There is nothing special about it, but it is a favourite of mine and someone once thought it special enough to be enlarged and mounted on card. It shows my maternal grandmother, Annie Maud Shipley and her daughter Edie. I am guessing from looking at my Auntie Edie that it may have been taken in the early nineteen thirties. A single daughter would have been a surprise to them as the husband and father of the family Robert came from a family of twelve but there had only been one baby born apart from Edie, George who did not survive infancy. My mother Nancy, Edie’s only sibling, was born twenty years later than her, well after this photograph was taken.

Edie is a much loved but uncosseted only child and she has been dressed in her best clothes, probably hand sewn. This was a farming family in a small hamlet on the Vale of York and having a photograph taken would have been an event in itself, something that you prepared for, talked about, and waited to see. Annie is also dressed in her best but that outfit is not new- the belt has seen some wear and the shoes are carefully polished but well worn. There was no money for luxuries. It is very touching how they have just taken a kitchen chair out into the yard, plonked it down and posed. These kind of shots would usually have been taken in a photographers studio but doing it this way was a way of saving cash and it made a charming second best when a special record was wanted. It is carefully posed- look at Annie’s crossed ankles and Edie’s hands behind her back- and this gives it a sense of occasion that belies the informal setting. There are other photos taken around that time- especially at harvest- so I think there must have been a camera around and someone who was interested in photography has been asked to make a special effort.

Most moving to me are the faces. My gran looks older than her years, although she didn’t change much. That’s what the hard work of farm life, both inside and outside the house does to you. There is a calm confidence in her eyes and a serenity that I remember well from when I was a small child. My Auntie Edie has the shy, kind look of a solitary young girl who doesn’t see people very often but who is willing to do her best and pose for her mum. She lived in another tiny village very close to where she was born all her life, doing a mixture of farm work and domestic service, married but remained childless, loved her half acre of garden, kept chickens and grew vegetables and never travelled very much. I think that you can see in her expression that she is going to stay close to home and live quietly. Family was very important to her and she stayed loyal. I was very fond of her and spent a lot of time with her later in her life, sitting quietly with her dog.

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I want to go home.

I want to go home
and find the past still waiting.

I want to watch the red ants
running over my favourite marble slab
in the path.
I want to help the caterpillars crawl
up the steep side of the corrugated iron garage
to hide away.
I want to lift a butterfly who is drunk with nectar
from a buddleia flower
and hold it high on the end of my finger.
I want to hear the thump of my rabbit’s back legs
as he scuttles to the secret part of his hutch
when I come to clean him out.
I want to feed my pet throstle.
I want to stroke my dog.

I want to smell the soft air
from the washhouse
on a Monday morning
and see the steam rise above the door.
I want to the hear the sound
of a transistor radio bleating out
from the lid of the water butt
in the pouring rain.
I want to hear the sound of my granddad
chopping wood for the fire
and run to him.
I want to eat fresh raspberries
straight from the canes
when I should be taking them in to my gran.
I want to prick myself picking gooseberries.
I want to shell some peas.

I want to sit at the back kitchen table
with my best marbles
and tell their stories.
I want to play with the fringe
of the green damask tablecloth.
I want to wear my blue dress
with the rows of tiny daisies on it
and a big bow at the back.
I want to read Swallows and Amazons again
for the very first time.
I want to sit on my swing
with a bar of chocolate
and sing to the May blossom
across the road.
I want to feel bored on a Sunday afternoon
that seems to last forever.
I want my mum to brush my hair.

I want to feel safe.
I want to go home.

This poem was published in the Spring 2015 edition of Northern Life magazine.

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The Twilight of Memory.

I have seen things that you will never see,
heard things that you will never hear,
been to places that have disappeared in the mist.
Don’t imagine that it didn’t happen
just because you were not there.
I have lived.

My memories walk with me,
holding me up,
helping me along,
filling my days.
Thoughts of half remembered summers
warm me,
caressing my face,
comforting me.
I stretch out my hands
towards the log fires of my youth,
and watch the sparks
chase away through the darkness
of the chimney breast.

The present is cold and unforgiving.
I step out of my front door, unseen.
There are things I could say,
but they will not ask.
Things I could do
but my body lets me down.
Things I know,
that I keep to myself.
I am left to go quietly,
listening and wondering
at this strange new world.

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Feed the birds. Me and Dewey.

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A single image can bring back so many memories…………………

This simple little photo, probably taken in 1963, is me feeding my pet throstle Dewey. Even the word throstle, which I was taught, is unusual now- it is a word from old English which was still common usage for a song thrush or a mistle thrush in the East Riding of Yorkshire back then. Feeding Dewey was a regular event. We had a large garden where my grandfather, a retired farmer, used to grow flowers, fruit and vegetables. There was a small orchard of apple trees and it was good hunting ground for birds, especially when he was digging. They regularly became quite tame as he would throw them worms. There were plenty of insects for them too as he gardened organically without necessarily even knowing the word. I had a very close relationship with everything that I saw in it.

This photograph was taken in the days before people recorded their every special moment at the touch of a button and it would have been quite carefully planned. Dewey used to come to the back door, but not always, and someone needed to be ready. Waiting for a photograph to be developed was quite nerve wracking. You had no idea whether it had actually come out or not until you opened the packet. No second chances as film and developing was expensive. There would have been some satisfaction when this one turned up. My generation generally has a very fragmented record of their early past- it’s a very different story now.

I used to have a special trip into York to get a pair of those cut out Clarks sandals at the beginning of every summer- just one pair and they were expected to last. I liked having my feet measured on the special gauge because it didn’t hurt and it made me feel special. I had wide feet and I was quite proud of that for some reason. Even though each pair of new summer sandals looked exactly like the ones that I am wearing in the photo shoe shops were still exciting because you had to wait to see the shoes taken out of a box, fetched down from high up on the wall by an assistant who had to climb a ladder or disappear into a storeroom at the back. I usually chose red and I was always allowed to walk out of the shop wearing them. I loved that.

In those days little girls always wore dresses, even when they were racketing around making dens between the apple trees and our high privet hedge. I still have my favourite one from this period, bright turquoise with rows of little white daisies sewn on and vertical stripes. That was my best dress and this one is a more everyday one but they were always in the same style. We weren’t princesses- more like mini Alma Cogans. Only the material changed.

The cardigan would have been hand knitted by either my Auntie Jean or my mum’s cousin Joyce. Knitting wasn’t something that you made a fuss about- it was quite an ordinary thing to do- but every family had one or two women who were particularly good at it and they were kept very busy. You didn’t buy jumpers.

Just behind the door there is a small rag rug. These rugs were handmade by my gran and my Aunty Edie from old cut up winter clothes and they were laid all over the house behind doors, next to beds and in front of fireplaces. The pieces of rag were pulled through a piece of loose weave, strong backing material with a special hook and they made simple colour combinations and patterns. Nothing was wasted- ever. I might well have walked on fragments of a frock worn by my great grandma. In her book Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal Jeanette Winterson describes rugs like this as lying around the house like damp dogs and I know exactly what she means. The big ones were very heavy and took a long while to make. Worn out summer clothes were made into patchwork quilts and dusters.

The step that I am standing on is the back door step which led into the kitchen- we rarely used the front door. My gran used to put down a rubber mat in front of it and scrub it regularly. She wore a cross over pinny and I had to keep out of the way. When she cleaned the back kitchen she used to make a train of chairs for me and sit me in one of the middle ones. I was quite happy on my own sitting there shouting choo choo while I could hear her bustling about in the next room.

Growing up in a household which was run by a couple born in Victorian times gives me a link to the past which someone of my age is lucky to have and I have always valued it. It might have been the swinging sixties but not in our house…….. or at least only on our tiny black and white television.

So near and yet so far.