Saturday, 29 May 2010

My mother's letters #2 - Edith's story

A while ago I wrote here about my mother's thirty-year correspondence with members of our family in Australia. I'm still working my way through the file, which holds copies of all the letters, papers and mementoes she's kept in that time. Today, tucked into one of many plastic wallets, I found a transcript of some notes taken by a man called Maurice Hugh Pointing during a visit to see his cousin Edith Frances Payne in 1951. On one side of paper, he had summed up a period of life spanning more than half a century, encompassing alcoholism, war, death, fortune and misfortune, with the odd passing reference to unsuitable marriage and behaviour. I'm not sure I've understood all the links between different incidents and people, but it does seem to me that there’s a whole book in just that one sheet of A4.
Edith’s story
Edith Frances Payne was born in 1880, the second of Joseph and Popsy Payne’s four children.
Joseph Payne was a Commercial Traveller for a soap firm. It wasn't a successful enterprise. When the firm went bust, the family placed themselves at the mercy of Grandma Pointing (Popsy’s mother) and her sister Elizabeth, and went to live with them at their home ‘Capuchin Lodge’ in Winchelsea.
When Aunt Elizabeth died in 1903, she left £200 each to Grandma, Popsy and Joseph.  Joseph drank Popsy’s share (presumably in addition to his own). Shortly afterwards, when the family moved to a new house in Rye, he was admitted to a home for inebriates.
Edith’s brother Harold was killed in the First World War. The insurance money paid out on his death was enough to buy ‘Rosslyn’ the house they had previously been renting in Rye.
Edith’s sister Alice died just before Christmas in 1949. Alice had been a Governess, working with a number of families, before taking in pupils at Rosslyn. Alongside the money earned by Alice as a governess, and whatever Edith generated through needlework, the family income was supplemented to the sum of about £220 a year from an inheritance bequeathed to them by an old lady they had ‘been kind to’.
Their brother Herbert had been a piano-tuner. He was still alive in 1951, but living in a 'home for Aged Folk'. He was separated from his wife Gertrude, whom Edith deemed ‘not suitable’. Herbert and Gertrude had four children, and although Edith thought they too were ‘not very suitable’, the three surviving children were destined to be the beneficiaries of her will.
In 1951 when Edith, aged 71, talked about her memories to her cousin Maurice High Pointing, she was still living at Rosslyn in Rye, but she had weak knees and couldn’t walk without help.
I haven’t worked through enough of Mum's letters to understand what relation any of these people are to me.  I know that my Grandfather, Mum’s Dad, was called Roy Payne, so this must somehow be a link to his family. But what strikes me most is how a family history can be summed up in a few bald lines. By reading a couple of totally dispassionate paragraphs, I've discovered that my ancestry includes a failed salesman who turned to drink, a young man who went to war and never returned, and various 'not suitable' family members. There's no hint there of the heartache that Joseph must have caused his family, or the difficulties those women must have encountered and overcome to move away, build a new life and keep going. Though I'm a little disappointed that I haven't yet found any statesmen or poet laureates among my forebears, I'd like to think I can at least recognise a familiar female trait of resistant persistence.

Monday, 24 May 2010

How to miss a bus...

I'd quite like to think that, over the years, I've developed a number of skills that keep me in gainful employment. 
Alongside this, and clearly more by accident than design, I have accumulated another set of talents for the workplace. This goes beyond the gentle art of procrastination - if you are serious enough you can ensure you miss the bus, the train, or the whole journey to work.
  1. Set your alarm to wake you at 6.00 - but opt for p.m. rather than a.m.
  2. If your kind-hearted partner wakes you anyway, regain control of the day with the following bathroom routine:
    • choose to brush your teeth with the electric toothbrush that needs re-charging - put it on to charge and wait........
    • while waiting for the toothbrush, decide to pluck your eyebrows. Discover that someone has borrowed the tweezers and put them somewhere safe. Look in the kitchen cutlery drawer, the toolbox in the cupboard-under-the-stairs, down the back of the sofa and under the bed. Finally check the shelf in front of the mirror in your daughter's bedroom, which will turn out to be the safest place in the house
    • part-way through plucking, become distracted by the number of grey hairs that have appeared overnight. Decide that you can't afford a hairdresser's appointment, and that pulling them out individually will be just as effective. Do not use the reclaimed tweezers for this - try, with clumsy early morning fingers and thumb to separate out each grey hair and pull.
    • while looking in the mirror, notice over your right shoulder the intricate cobweb building in the corner of the bathroom ceiling. Take this opportunity to do some spontaneous spring cleaning.
  3. Feeling the buzz of positive goodwill engendered by the burst of cleaning, take the hoover out of the cupboard under the stairs to attack the rest of the nooks and crannies in the house.
  4. Realise that the hoover bag needs changing. Note the absence of any spare bags, but refuse to be beaten by this minor set-back. Opt instead for emptying the existing one into the compost bin (probably best to get dressed before completing this action)
  5. If you've followed my advice about dressing before going to the compost bin, you will now need to change your dust-and-muck decorated clothes.
  6. Acknowledge that the alternative skirt you've selected from the overcrowded wardrobe is definitely in need of an iron. Set up the ironing board and plug in the iron. While waiting for the iron to heat, do not be tempted to go and check if the toothbrush is now fully charged.Only after the iron has reached the required temperature should you look to see if there is any water for steam.
  7. Decide you don't have time to fill the water compartment, so dry-iron your skirt. This will, naturally take much longer than steam-ironing and will be much less effective.
  8. Once dressed, return to the now-charged toothbrush and carefully polish your molars, incisors and canines for the designated 2 minutes.
  9. Drop blue gel toothpaste down your freshly ironed skirt. You will now need to change your fluoride decorated clothes. 
  10. Repeat steps 6 & 7.
And so it goes on...Trust me, there is a skill to this.

Sunday, 16 May 2010

Keep remembering

Things we keep
Washed up pebbles from the sea
Old clothes that never fit
Underwear long past its best
A pile of magazines
Toilet rolls for planting seeds
Shoe-boxes filled with wool
Lottery tickets, out of date
A purse of two-pound coins
Tickets from a musical
Shelves piled high with books
The box that held the kettle
A broken mobile phone

Keep your temper
Hold your tongue
Keep remembering
Forever young.

Saturday, 15 May 2010

Ringing a bell

Both Philip and Megan have got new mobiles. Like children at Christmas, they unwrapped their toys with glee, and now they carry them everywhere - like comfort blankets or much-treasured teddy bears. In Megan's case the new phone is even sleeping on the pillow beside her (happily I am still allowed that honour next to Philip).
I have listened with bemusement while they've proudly described the tricks their new pocket friends can perform - blogging, facebook, spotify, GPS,.....The list seems endless and I am beginning to tire with the unbridled joy of it all.
Recently I heard Paul McCartney in a radio interview. During the conversation he started reminiscing about the days before mobile phones; the time when people 'just had a telephone under the stairs, not even an answerphone - people stayed in to wait for a call because when you were out you were out'.
When I was a teenager, the phone stood on a special table in the hall. Do furniture companies still make those teak-style telephone tables - with a padded black vinyl seat and space for the phone on top and a shelf underneath for the Telephone Directory and the Yellow Pages. Do people still use telephone directories? 


On one level it was great that the phone was in the hall. It provided a small element of privacy and meant you didn't have to talk over the TV. The cord was just about long enough to stretch it round the banisters, so I could sit on the stairs to chat - the padded vinyl seat wasn't great for long conversations. The downside however was the draught that came in under the front door and through the letter box. No central heating in those days, so not pleasant in the winter if you sat there too long. I guess it was one way of keeping the phone bills down.
No such worries for my daughter who can talk and text for hours from the warm comfort of her bed. But she'll never really know the excitement of the phone ringing, nobody knowing who was on the other end, and everyone jumping up, elbowing each other out of the way with hopeful cries of 'It'll be for me - I'll get it'.

Saturday, 8 May 2010

Pausing to remember

It's been a strange week. Half of my thoughts and attention on trying to finish, revise and edit a short story; the other half caught up in the most intriguing election I've ever experienced.
There hasn't been much time for blogging, but I've had so many conversations in the last few days. People have become eager to share their thoughts and convictions - whatever the colour of their politics - there is a willingness to consider and debate the options and the possible outcomes. That leaves me with a good deal of hope that something good will emerge from all this confusion.
I'm also left with a quite a lump of sadness.
My Dad was a politician, not at Westminster, although that was his, sadly unfulfilled, ultimate ambition. He was, instead a dedicated member then Leader of our local Council, an Alderman of the Greater London Council and a much respected member of his party. I have so many memories associated with previous elections. Barely seeing him for weeks on end, but then very proudly accompanying him to visit the local party offices, where groups of women were sitting stuffing envelopes; admiring his campaign portrait - head on one side, slight smile, posing with a pen and a pile of papers to sign, as an indication of his importance and value. I have vague images of my mum, worrying about her hair and her clothes for various functions. I can remember waking up in the early hours, hearing my parents return from a late-night count, knowing from the tone of their voices whether it had gone the right way.
Dad died a long time ago now, but election days still bring him very much into my thoughts. I've never quite got over my feelings of guilt that, no matter how strong and clearly reasoned my decision process, I don't and never have voted for the party he belonged to. Nevertheless, I can't help but wish that I had a chance to talk to him this week, to know his reaction to the way the campaign has gone - what he thought of the TV debates, the newspaper editorials, even the twitter streams and facebook groups that were never even imagined in his days. I would dearly love to know what he thought of the prospect of a hung parliament, a minority government or a coalition, and perhaps even changes to the electoral system.
When I was a kid he was the cleverest man in the world. He always knew the answer, and he could always explain things to me. Following the events of Thursday, and the continuing maelstrom of political conjecture and hyperbole, I'm sorry that I can't hear his voice putting it all into context for me.
So today, I shall pause for a while and raise a toast to Bernard Perkins, the best Prime Minister Britain never had.

Sunday, 2 May 2010

Buried treasure!

This isn't an allotment blog, but......
Those of you who also read my beloved's blog will know that we have an allotment. You will have heard that we spend lots of time there - digging and planting and hoeing to get it to look like this:

And because we work pretty hard on it, we're pretty damn smug when it comes to eating the goodies it yields in return. So we both wax lyrical about the wonder of the first new potatoes of the season and the tender juicy crunch of our own golden sweetcorn.
This week, however, we struck real treasure......
One corner of the allotment has been under carpet for the last two years - we simply haven't had time to dig it over and plant it. This year I am determined to get that corner sorted, so this week, while I've been off from work, I started digging.
In my endeavours to ensure that no trace of dock or rye grass makes it back to the plot, I generally sift quite carefully through the soil. While checking through one fork-full, I came across a very small, rather thin and very dirty coin. Three days later, having steeped it first in vinegar then in cherry coke (what can I say - it was all we had) - we've discovered it's a silver sixpence from 1859!

Now I know it's not going to make us rich (yes Philip did get as far as checking out on e-bay how much it might be worth...) but we've had  fun imagining how it made its way into the ground; who might have dropped it and when. We've also done some thinking about sixpences and their uses.
I've been reminiscing about my mum's Christmas puddings, which always had a sixpence in them when we were young, and we've found out that, traditionally, a silver sixpence was placed in the bride's left shoe to bring wealth - not only financial, but also a wealth of happiness and joy for all her married life.
Something old, something new,
Something borrowed, something blue,
A silver sixpence in her shoe.
I've remembered the song we sang as kids; with much hilarity and more than a little viciousness in our pecking:

Sing a song of sixpence a pocket full of rye, 
four and twenty black birds baked in a pie. 
When the pie was opened the birds began to sing, 
wasn't that a dainty dish to set before the king? 
The king was in his counting house counting out his money, 
the queen was in the parlor eating bread and honey. 
The maid was in the garden hanging out the clothes,
when down came a black bird and pecked off her nose.
And I've been thinking back to my eighth birthday, when my dad took me to see the film Half a Sixpence, starring Tommy Steele. The film, set in Kent (now there's a coincidence) tells the story of Arthur Kipps, a draper's assistant who falls in love with a chambermaid called Ann. In quick succession, he comes into a fortune, nearly marries a wealthy girl, marries Ann instead, loses his fortune, but then regains it and lives happily ever after. The half a sixpence of the title was a silver coin split in half, with each half kept as a love token by Arthur and Ann. The film was critically slated, but I've always had a bit of a soft spot for it. 
So....what do to with our treasure?