Archive for the ‘articles’ Category
Listen to this Medieval rote song
My first spring in England, late afternoon in Windsor Great Park. Green-gold light through ancient oaks, the air rich with leaf-mold and violets. A cuckoo calls. I have heard the sound all my life, in music and poems, but never before in the wild.
Listen to the cuckoo calling in this recording from the British Library
As I stand listening, this spring in 1962, something shifts in my thinking. It is as if previously I saw the world through two mesh screens, one named Southern Hemisphere and the other Northern Hemisphere, half a year out of alignment with each other, so that my view was blurred by the moiré patterns their meshes made. The religious festivals my ancestors brought from the northern hemisphere when they emigrated to New Zealand lost their old association with the seasonal cycles of life and death when celebrated in the reversed seasons of the southern hemisphere. In consequence, I felt, even as a child, a subtle sense of having been cut off at the roots, of being, even after several generations, transplanted British.
Images float into my mind. Mid-morning, Christmas Eve, at All Saints Church in Tauranga, NZ. Strewn mounds of flowers deck the chancel steps. The Altar Guild ladies are filling shiny brass vases that stand either side of a red-draped altar. Bronze-purple foliage of copper beech, fans of gladiolus spikes, the tropical exuberance of canna. They add dahlias, roses, bougainvillea until the reds vibrate.
Sunlight through stained glass glitters on the sharp points of holly springs that I strew along the dark wood windowsills, hiding jam jars filled with red geranium flowers. The holly bears no berry here, this time of year, and the carol I hum under my breath echoes in an empty place inside me. Later, at midnight services, the congregation sings of light in darkness and the falling of snow. We emerge to warm air, misty moonlight, and the scent of magnolias. This Christmas is not real, I think to myself. It’s pious make-believe.
Easter: after morning church and family lunch, I gather with siblings and cousins on the porch to smash the Easter eggs we have all been given. Molded of hard sugar, they are pastel pretty, with piped-on decorations of flowers and leaves, the symbols of spring. Having gorged ourselves, we scamper off to scuffle through autumnal leaves.
My reading in college, particularly J.G. Frazer’s The Golden Bough, helped me recognize that Christian festivals have pagan roots: the ritual victim dies at planting time; the winter birth is the rebirth of the sun. As the cuckoo calls again, cu-coo, over and over, quietly, the blurred meshes of my hemispheres resolve and I see through: myself and my people bound by tangled apron strings to the life our forbears left, and to the earth itself, an old reality, almost forgotten.
By the time I interviewed him in 1963, Paul Abbatt and his wife Marjorie had spent thirty years as advocates for the importance of play in the development of young children and for the betterment of children’s toys and playing facilities. Toys commissioned by their toy company, Paul and Marjorie Abbatt Ltd. of 94 Wimpole Street in London, won prestigious international awards for their good quality and design. Paul Abbatt, whose chief interest was in ‘the ethos behind the business,’ delivered lectures and contributed to academic and professional journals on child development.
In 1963, Abbatt was focusing on outdoor playgrounds for older children. He commented that
“…as a society becomes more urban and industrialised, it becomes more and more hostile to the child and its needs. As buildings are packed closer and closer together, available sites become too valuable for industry, or for car parks, to be used for children’s playgrounds. Even the upper class child with a garden of his own is no better off, for custom demands that his parents keep their grounds neat and spotless, and the child has no opportunity for such fundamental activities as building a den, or digging down to Australia.
In keeping with the stereotypes of his time, by older children he meant older boys, assuming that a girl would be “already a mother with dolls, kitchen, a little house of her own.” The interview continues:
Mr Abbatt believes that the solution to the needs of the older child can be found in the adventure playground. The first of these was built several years ago in Copenhagen, where the designer, instead of putting in the usual concrete shapes, swings and slides, filled his playground with builders’ junk. The playground was a great success, and was copied all over Europe. Some cities produced old cars, or traction engines, used tires, and even an old boat.
The first experimental playgrounds, with their carefully manufactured playing facilities, had not been a success. The children were interested at first, but quickly gravitated to the streets just outside the playground, where they were closer to the real life that they knew. But when the material was provided on the sites for them to build their own dens, they could create their own world inside the playground. “Building a den seems to be fundamental to children’s play, and other activities develop round the original den,” said Mr Abbatt. In Zurich, for example, the gang who inhabited one playground built up such a community spirit that they had their own bank with its own play money, a duplicated magazine, an antique shop, and even a farm with a dozen ducks on a man-made pond. When each gang deserts the playground, as they eventually do, the dens are pulled down, and the next gang to come along starts from scratch with the pile of junk.
In the meantime, in Copenhagen, the first adventure playground has become something of a showplace for visiting social workers. The grounds have been tidied up, and the rough dens turned into pretty villas. The visitors look and admire, but the children no longer come.
Similar problems affect playgrounds in Britain. They are normally noisy, untidy, derelict places, a disgrace to the neighbourhood of neat houses with even neater gardens. So local residents complain, and the council tidies up the playground. “In doing so, they destroy the urge for creative activity that the previous junk-heap gave to the children,” said Mr Abbatt.
In preparation for a conference of the International Council for Children’s Play, which Abbatt helped found, he is making a descriptive survey of children in Britain.
He has invited parents to write and tell him what their children do, and, since small boys particularly are notoriously uncommunicative about the activities of their gangs, he is also seeking information from policemen, schoolteachers, traffic wardens, and others who see the children outside their homes. Already the response from parents has been overwhelming.
He hopes that the survey will provide town planners, architects, and designers, with information on what children really want out of their community.
In a note to my editor, I promised a follow-up when the survey results were in. I’ll talk about that in my next blog piece.
The winter of 1962-63, my first in England, was the coldest Britain had known in over 200 years. First the fog crept in. My nostrils tightened against the thick yellow damp, sour with the smoke of coal fires and diesel trains. As November wore on and the cold deepened, fog froze into hoar frost that thickened daily on the power lines until they resembled sagging ropes.
Snow began the day after Christmas. All January it snowed and froze and snowed again. Transportation systems ground to a halt. The River Thames froze over. The inside wall of our apartment kitchen, wet since November and already black-mottled with mildew, glazed over with ice. On the outsides of buildings, ice congealed around plumbing outlet pipes like candle wax dripped from lighted candles. Water pipes froze and burst. The clatter of buckets as the water truck made its rounds became a familiar sound in our Windsor neighborhood.
A side benefit of the bad weather was that we got to know our neighbors. Here’s a letter I wrote to my parents:
23 January 1963
I think we must be drifting into another ice age – the weather here continues to get colder every day. All sources of fuel – coal, gas electricity, and even paraffin, are in short supply, and everyone is fighting a losing battle against frozen pipes and general seizing up.
We had our fun and games over the weekend. We were woken fairly early on Saturday morning to terrific shouting and hammering on the door. We staggered out, to find that the Hoopers were being flooded out – their kitchen was an icy pond, and water was pouring through the light fitting in the ceiling. We turned off all the taps we could find, someone somehow found a plumber, and after he, Tony and Peter [Hooper] had hacked their way through the several inches of ice outside the front gate, and even more ice on top of the valve, they managed to get the mains off. Next thing we tried to get in touch with Stan Fricker, from whose flat the water was coming – he was at work, and we had visions of him coming home to a complete flood. By the time he arrived we had swished most of the water out of the kitchen, and had got all the heaters we could find in to dry it out. So we all trooped up into Stan’s bathroom, which is directly above the Hoopers’ kitchen and, to our surprise, found very little trace of water. We bailed the solid chucks of ice out of the bath, which had been frozen up for days, and Stan and Tony got to work on the floorboards, which were suspiciously damp. They managed to raise a couple, and discovered that the break in the pipe was right underneath the bath, which had been very recently closed in and modernised with plywood, fresh paint, and what not. A brute to get at.
The next thing to do was to find a plumber to fix it – easier said than done – “Oh no, love, we couldn’t possibly let you have one till Monday.” I don’t know how many pennies we spent on phone calls over the weekend, but at fourpence a call we went through several shillings. But we still couldn’t get a plumber till Monday, and late Monday afternoon at that. So we borrowed buckets of water from a neighbor, and puddled along with little dribs of washing where necessary, keeping most of it for drinking. It was pretty messy. At least in the old days they had facilities in keeping with such conditions – but try using a modern-type lav when you have nothing but half a bucket of dirty water to flush it with. That was the first thing that Margaret [Hooper] did, with great ceremony, when the plumber finally managed to get the water on again for us on Monday evening. Our lav had to wait a few hours longer – the remaining water in it had got so iced up that it had to be very carefully thawed before anything would move. And we still can’t have a bath – the outlet pipes in the bathroom are frozen up and, according to the plumber, that will just have to wait till the thaw.
The kitchen outlet, which comes down in the same place – down the outside wall on the coldest side of the house, now shows signs of doing the same thing, which would be choice. I am shortly going to do some washing, and hope that the gallons of hot water from the tub will deter it. Still, we could always throw our slops out the window – if we could unfreeze the windows enough to open them, that is. Might as well be really primitive.
We are getting rather advanced ideas on the proper requirements of a house in this climate – they do not agree very much with the conventional buildings most people live in here. Definitely central heating, double glazing, and interior plumbing.
Last week we went to a Swedish party – the St. Lucia festival, I wrote to my parents from England in mid-December 1962. The background of it seems somewhat confused – the story of a saint mixed up with old pagan mid-winter rites.
My confused reaction to this experience opened me to the concept of cultural adaptation: the way stories and beliefs from one tradition are assimilated into another. Growing up as a Christian in New Zealand, where the seasons are the opposite of the Northern Hemisphere, I was aware of an odd disconnect in the trappings of our festivals, but as yet did not fully comprehend why this should be.
The event was also a fun field trip for our group of Swedish language students at the College of Further Education in Slough, west of London. Tony and I had become enamored of all things Scandinavian, and hoped to go there one day. Our teacher, Ingrid, the daughter of a diplomat based in London, was eager to introduce us to London’s Swedish community. I tried to summarize her explanation of the festival in my letter, which continues:
The cattle were slaughtered about Dec. 13 for Christmas, and the women used to come out early in the morning with the men’s breakfast. It developed into a ceremony in which a young girl, attended by maidens and young boys, & wearing a head-dress of candles on her head, goes early in the morning to the homes of people in the district bringing hot coffee. Apparently in Stockholm anyway it has developed into a sort of beauty contest, but in London the Swedes are more Swedish than at home & we saw a more genuine procession of children (the little boys looking very self-conscious) singing charming old Swedish carols, & all carrying candles in the darkened room. Very effective & beautiful. The evening finished with coffee & Swedish cakes & pastries at candle-lit tables.
I later learned that before the Christian west adopted the Gregorian calendar in the late 1500s, St. Lucia’s Day fell on the winter solstice, and that it originally honored a goddess who brings the light in the dark Swedish winters. Traces of this solstice celebration linger in the words of the carols sung by the children.
The event we attended at the Swedish church in London also included a crafts fair, which I wrote about for my New Zealand newspaper. Here is the text:
SWEDISH CHRISTMAS DECORATIONS
Our Christmas tree will be decorated with a Swedish angel this year. She is made out of barley straw, pale shining gold pieces neatly tied together. In the early days in Sweden, when the floors of homes were covered with straw to keep out the bitter cold, Christmas guests used to play with the shining straws, plaiting and twisting them into quaint figures. Now Swedish houses are centrally heated, but the custom has persisted, and wherever in the world Swedish people live, at Christmas their homes are always decorated with the golden figures and wreaths.
The Swedish community in London recently held their annual church fair, and out came the traditional Christmas gifts and decorations. As well as the charming angels, there were straw animals, goats and horses and dogs, and handsome plaited wreaths for hanging at the door. Other figures were turned or carved out of wood, and brightly painted. Particularly impressive were ranks of glowing red wooden horses in varying sizes, each painted with gaily decorated harness. Very thin pieces of wood were carved into the tails and wings of formalized birds. By contrast with the tinsel and glitter of English decorations, these traditional designs have a striking simplicity of line and a quaint charm that is refreshing and timeless.
Maureen is exploring an old black filing cabinet that contains 55 years of her papers and memorabilia.
Living as I do in Mendocino, CA, I am blessed with access to excellent local bakeries offering a wide variety of breads. I was amused to find in my old black filing cabinet this article I wrote for my New Zealand newspaper about discovering there were more names for bread than “white” and “brown.”
Slindon Bakery’s website has many pictures of these traditional English breads.
A Loaf by Any Other Name
The shelves of a baker’s shop anywhere in New Zealand will be much the same—piled high with round-topped loaves in brown or white, square white sandwich loaves, and pre-cut wrapped bread, and although North Islanders and South Islanders may argue for hours over whether the broken half of the double loaf should be called a “half” or a “quarter”, they will usually be able to make themselves understood in any bakery.
Imagine then the confusion of a New Zealand housewife confronted with the window of an English bakery, filled with loaves in an incredible variety of shapes and sizes. Some of the shapes are wonderfully decorative. There will be long thin loaves and short fat ones, some decorated with grain and some with shining glazes. There will be complicated plaits and squat little knots, enormous swelling crusty loaves, and incredibly long thin rolls that look as if they have been transplanted from the Continent.
The vagaries of English custom have established different names for these traditional shapes from town to town, and sometimes even from shop to shop in the same town.
The biggest and crustiest loaf of them all is usually called a “farmhouse.” It is a tall white loaf, often bursting from a long crack in its top. It has a close relation in the “split tin”, which does not appear to be split at all, but merely a white loaf, again with a cracked top, baked in a narrow oblong tin. These loaves are not to be confused with the “Danish”, which is not baked in a tin at all, but rises as a large oval loaf, dusted with white flour, from a flat tray.
Then there are the more elaborate shapes, such as the “cottage”, often confused with the “farmhouse”. The “cottage” is made with two balls of dough, the smaller being set like a top-knot on top of the larger. Another even more complicated one is the double plait, which contains, as its name implies, two plaits of dough set one on top of the other.
Some of the small round loaves have fascinating names. There is a ball of rich wholemeal bread decorated with wheat grains, which is called, appropriately enough, a “round meal”, but the white ball, this time with a shining brown glaze, is known as a “cob.” This is reputed to be short for “Coburg”, but where this name came from few seem to know.
The origins of other names are more obvious. One delicious scone loaf, which is sold in quarter segments of a large flat disk, is known in England as “Scotch fare”. In Wales, however, they are sold as “Welsh babs”.
A small light white loaf with a shiny glazed crust decorated with diagonal slashes, and known as a “Continental”, has a large elder brother with various titles, but usually known as a “twist” or a “bloomer”. This odd name can cause difficulties, and it has happened that an order for “A large bloomer, thank you” has met with raised eye-brows from the shops that have not heard of this title. In most cases, it is safer to point: “That one over there” and then politely ask the name of the specimen as it is being wrapped up.
My journalist instincts kicked in when I discovered a seething political battle behind a traditional English fair, in Wraysbury, a village on the Thames west of London. In my old black filing cabinet I found a copy of the article I wrote in 1962 for my Christchurch, New Zealand newspaper. I’ve appended a transcript.
A postscript: the Wraysbury Village Association won their appeal in July 1962. A search on Google Maps shows there is still a substantial green, with playing fields and tennis courts.
LEGAL BATTLE OVER VILLAGE FAIR
In the shade of ancient oaks and chestnuts, where the sweet scent of hay rises from the scythed grass, the sounds of the fair blare out from merry-go-rounds and coconut shies. Across the green, starry with clumps of white daisies, tents and stalls are filled with people inspecting plants, basketwork, and local works of art, or watching a potter at his wheel, or quaffing ale in the refreshment tent.
Wrestlers, fencers and gymnasts display their skills, and a model train, ponies and donkeys give rides across the green to excited children. The soft fluff of dandelion seeds fills the air, and above the trees dozens of swirling balloons make patterns against the warm summer sky. Pretty girls in long skirts, frilly white blouses and straw bonnets are selling programmes.
This is an English country fair, but one with a difference. It is an act of defiance by a village threatened with destruction, a self-consciously archaic revival of an ancient right and custom against the encroachments of suburban London. Its background is a feud that has split the village in two.
Wraysbury, Bucks., was a flourishing village when the Domesday Book was written, and inside its parish boundaries, on an island in the Thames, Magna Carta was signed by King John. Now overhead the whine of airliners rising from London’s Heathrow airport vie for attention with the swooping and twittering swallows. All round the village the tentacles of London’s urban sprawl show themselves in rows of smart modern houses. Closer and closer to the village the heavy machinery of the gravel merchants turns this swampy land on the north banks of the Thames into untidy pools and mounds of gravel.
Now the old manor farm, a relic of feudal times, is to go under the hammer. Most of the farm will be broken up—“for building development and gravel extraction.”
Most of this change has been taken philosophically by the residents of Wraysbury, many of whom have themselves come to the village from the crowded heart of London. But three years ago a crisis developed. A building speculator who had bought part of what was once the village green asked the villagers to waive their rights to this patch of land.
“What rights?” the villagers asked. They discovered that when the great enclosures had taken place in the 18th and early 19th centuries, a private Act of Parliament had in 1803 safeguarded to the use of the villagers certain footpaths down to and along the banks of the Colne Brook, which runs through the village, and also the right to hold, on the Friday afternoon after Whit-Sunday, the ancient and traditional fair on the village green.
This green is now in three sections, one of which was bought by public subscription for the village. Another section was bought by the local tennis club, and the third by the building speculator.
The speculator’s plot, like his request, is insignificant in itself, but the villagers believe that a major principle is at stake, particularly as a gravel contractor at the same time asked for a waiving of rights on one of the old footpaths, in order to extend his gravel extracting operations.
The villagers’ main concern is their remaining village green. If they were to give way in the two present cases, they feel that the Act which safeguards their rights will be undermined, and they will have no means of defending what is left.
When the matter was first broached, friends of the builder called a public meeting of the residents, who turned down the request by about 300 votes to 10. The builder decided, however, to continue his scheme. His opponents formed a residents’ association to protect their rights, accused the parish council of complicity, stupidity, or both, and applied to the court for an injunction to restrain the builder.
On the other side were ranged the parish council, half of whom were replaced by the association’s nominees at the next election, and those builders who were interested in property development, and who considered that the opposition were obstructing legitimate progress.
The association won their case, but an appeal is pending. Meanwhile, they determined to revive the traditional fair, which had not been held for 50 years. The fair itself, like most English country fairs, is a relic of pagan times, when it was a feast to honour gods and heroes. With the coming of Christianity the custom was adapted to a wake, or all-night vigil, which the parishioners spent in the church. It was followed the next day by eating and drinking and rural games.
The wakes, which had by that time become very riotous affairs, were stopped by Henry VIII. Charles I revived the old custom, but took the precaution of ordering that his Justices of the Peace should be responsible for preventing any disorders. By this time the religious aspect of the feast had become of secondary importance, and hawkers and peddlers of merchandise of all descriptions began to put in an appearance.
But the right to hold a fair was still held so sacred that, even through the great enclosures of the agrarian revolution, it was preserved to the village on the remnants of common land. It is this right which the villagers of Wraysbury are defending today. They do not see their fair as a sacred feast, but rather as a symbol of their right to keep a beautiful patch of ground for their, and their children’s recreation.
The explain it in their programme, which describes the purpose of the fair:
“In these days of giant squid corporations and almost omnipotent local authorities, it is by no means impossible that what the Act of 1803 salvaged from the ruins of the old manorial system might yet get mislaid and turn up in somebody’s back yard.”
“I’ve seen Last Year at Marienbad seventeen times already,” our college friend Bill told us as he showed us around London on our arrival in 1962. “I still haven’t figured out what really happened. I’ll have to go again this weekend.” This enigmatic movie, directed by Alain Resnais and Alain Robbe-Grillet, is considered a masterpiece of the French New Wave. The movie website rottentomatoes.com comments: “Elegantly enigmatic and dreamlike, this work of essential cinema features exquisite cinematography and an exploration of narrative still revisited by filmmakers today.”
For my husband Tony and me, it exemplified the rich cultural life we discovered in London. In New Zealand, where we grew up, to be an intellectual was to live as a small coterie on the outskirts of society, viewed with suspicion by the mainstream. To be an intellectual in London was to be part of a big vibrant conversation, fueled by articulate reviews of movies, books, art exhibitions, plays and dance performances in the Sunday Times and other papers. In between job hunting and flat hunting, we took the opportunity to participate as much as possible.
Reading again a letter to parents dated April 18, 1962, not long after we arrived, I note a distancing of myself from this new world of ideas, possibly a Kiwi reluctance to admit my eagerness to be part of it. I wrote:
London is chockfull of fascinating characters – you meet them everywhere – on the street, in the Underground. All sorts and shapes and sizes. We met the intellectual set last night – went up to a cinema at Hampstead Village – on the edge of the Heath – which is obviously run by and for the intellectual crowd – hard red and black in the décor, and the finishing touch a handsome beaten copper plaque for the exit sign. They have been showing a series of all Ingmar Bergman, the modern Swedish director’s films. The place was packed out with long hair and beards and intense faces. Almost as interesting to watch as the film. It was a very delicate and charming piece called “Smiles of a Summer Night.” We also saw another interesting film the other night – Alain Resnais’s “Last Year at Marienbad” – highly psychological (and apparently the intellectuals’ current talking-point!) The story (if you can call it that) is that a woman meets a man at a spa who tries to convince her that they were intimate there the previous year, but she thinks she has never seen him before. Scope for highly intriguing playing around with time and facts, with emotional distortions.
In a 1962 article I wrote for my old paper, the Christchurch (NZ) Press, a draft of which I found in my old black filing cabinet, I wrote:
I have learned a healthy admiration for people of all countries who leave their homes to make a new life in another country. After three months as an immigrant in England, I realize how difficult it could be.
It took my husband two months to find a suitable job. It took us three months to find a permanent place to live. This is in a country where we, as New Zealanders, did not have to cope with language or cultural difficulties, or racial prejudice, like so many other members of the Commonwealth also drawn to the magnet of London.
We had no idea at the time of the hugeness of the immigration wave in which we floundered. To aid in post-war reconstruction in the 1950s, Britain had recruited labor from its colonies, primarily the West Indies and the Indian sub-continent. At that time people from the Empire and Commonwealth had unhindered rights to enter Britain. However, by the late 1950s, with the British economy faltering, racial prejudice reared its violent head. The Conservative Party government proposed legislation to make immigration for non-white people harder. One aspect of the proposed bill was to deny entry to dependents of immigrant workers. Before the Commonwealth Immigrants Act of 1962 could go into effect, the entry of dependents into Britain increased almost threefold as families attempted to beat the deadline. Total immigration from what was known as the New Commonwealth swelled from 21,550 in 1959 to 58,300 in 1960 and a record 125,000 in 1961.
Statistics are from Paul Foot, Immigration and Race in British Politics (Penguin, 1965)
All these people needed somewhere to live. It is no wonder then that rents soared and accommodations of any sort were snapped up. While Tony job-hunted, I haunted rental agencies for a short-term apartment (or flat, as they’re called in England) and, the hefty Bartholomews Atlas of Greater London under my arm, braved the Underground and navigated the suburbs. My letters to parents are full of observations like this one:
It’s amazing how so many of the little villages that have been absorbed into the city still retain their village atmosphere – you pop up from an Underground station and could imagine yourself miles out in the country – unless you happen to be on a bit of a rise, when you see nothing but houses as far as the eye can see. One place I visited, for instance, Muswell Hill, you had to go by bus through a very extensive patch of woodland to get to it. That place I didn’t take, incidentally, because the bath was in the kitchen – covered by a lift-up board and a little frilly curtain. When I mentioned this to another English landlady she didn’t even raise an eyebrow.
My letter continues:
We have now moved out of our hotel into a bedsitter out at Hampstead, for which we are being grossly overcharged – I guess we just took it in a moment of desperation.
The rent was six and a half guineas a week (the same buying power as about $200 in current U.S. dollars.) Every piece of furniture was shaky about the legs, and the cooking facilities were two gas rings crammed into a cupboard with about six inches of counter surface. The shared bathroom was down the shabby hall. I described the landlady as
a bit of a social type – she was too busy preparing for her cocktail party last night to attend to our wants, which brassed me off considerably. Still we get on quite well with her little dog, so with a little careful handling relations might improve.
Relations did not improve. Still vivid in my mind is one of our shouting matches. I had returned from the local laundrette with clothes still damp, in spite of multiple coin feeds to the drier, and had strung clothesline around the room. In walked Mrs. Ashley-Davis. “My furniture! My furniture!” she wailed, hand to her heart. Other disputes must have followed. In a letter to parents dated May 25, after giving the news that Tony had accepted a job near Windsor, I mention that we have given notice
…after some somewhat violent disputes with the landlady, in which I managed to lose my temper – catastrophe!
Finding permanent housing proved even more frustrating. I told my parents:
…for the last three or four days we have been footslogging, railriding, bussing, and generally getting fed up in a wide arc around the area…
We moved out to a hotel near Tony’s new job. My letters for the next few weeks are full of the false hopes and discouragements of the search. Finally we got lucky: a second floor flat in a Victorian brick semi-detached house just down the hill from Windsor Castle. A roof over our heads at last!
Here’s a modern Google Maps street view of the neighborhood. It still looks much the same.
In the 1940s, when I was a schoolchild in New Zealand, we used our red pencils to color in maps of the world. Great Britain, of course: England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland (Eire was gone by then). Huge chunks of the African continent that still had their old names and boundaries: Sudan, Gold Coast, Cameroons, Nigeria, Kenya, Uganda, Tanganyika, Rhodesia, South Africa are just some I remember. The Indian subcontinent with neighboring Ceylon and Burma. Pieces of the East Indies archipelago. Australia, our nearest neighbor. Little red dots, lots of them, for Pacific island dependencies. The big swathe of Canada. More dots in the Caribbean, and a dab for British Guiana on the South American mainland. We pressed our red pencils hardest for New Zealand, the furthest outpost of the British Empire, on which, it was said, the sun never set.
This website has a fascinating time lapse view of
the rise and fall of the British Empire.
Even as we children beamed with pride at our splendid red maps, our world was changing. By the time I moved to England in 1962, the political geography I knew as a child was obsolete. The British had retreated from the Indian Empire, leaving behind a land painfully divided between Hindu and Moslem. The red chunks of Africa rearranged themselves into separate nations. South Africa, Canada, Australia and New Zealand declared themselves a Commonwealth, still recognizing the Queen, but independent of British rule.
Old loyalties die hard. The Union Jack still fills the top left corner of the New Zealand flag. In 1962, New Zealanders still looked to England as the “mother country” and I could write to my parents, in my first letter from London: “[W]e have finally arrived in the Heart of the Empire.”
The mood I encountered in the old empire’s capital was bleak. Great Britain had survived World War II, but at an enormous financial cost, and the national debt hung like a shadow over the economy.
After the austerity of the 1950s, living standards were improving, but the country’s wealth, prestige and authority had been severely reduced. Economically, Britain was slipping behind its competitors. Relations between management and labor were bad; the newspapers were full of reports of strikes and unrest. It did not feel like a good place to be starting a new adventure.
When I first went to London, I already knew it, or thought I did. The literature I studied growing up was English literature – novels by writers who lived in England and wrote about English life. From them I learned to find my way around London in my imagination. When I finally walked the London streets in 1962, I recognized names every time I glanced at a signpost. From Dickens I’d learned about the Inns of Court and Chancery Lane. I knew that Savile Row was filled with bespoke tailors, though I had only a vague idea what “bespoke” meant. Bond Street was where expensive jewelry was purchased by upper crust people who visited expensive doctors on Wimpole Street. Carnaby Street was where fashionable young people bought the latest fashions. As a newspaper reporter, I revered Fleet Street, where the great London dailies were headquartered.
The BBC world news, which in New Zealand we listened to on the radio every day, opened with the chimes of Big Ben, the clock at the Palace of Westminster, where the British Parliament met. I knew the sound, but still could write in amazement to my parents: When Big Ben strikes the whole street reverberates.
A big thrill was hearing the bells of St. Clement Danes in the Strand sing “Oranges & Lemons” as we strolled past for the first time. Back came the singing game we played as children, racing through an arch made by two of our playmates, trying not to get caught.
I wrote in my notes:
[V]ery difficult not to associate names of places in London with famous songs about them – find myself starting to hum the songs as I read the names.
We went to Buckingham Palace, of course, and I thought of my childhood book-friend Christopher Robin:
They’re changing guard at Buckingham Palace –
Christopher Robin went down with Alice.
Alice is marrying one of the guard.
“A soldier’s life is terrible hard,”
My memory of those first few days in London is a sense of wonder and excitement as places became real. At the same time, there was a disconnect. I had to let go of expectations that special buildings, Sir Christopher Wren’s St. Paul’s, for instance, were set off from other buildings, up on a pedestal, giving off a radiant glow. Reality was grimy walls and a crushed cigarette packet in the gutter. I wrote:
Peculiar sensation frequently of almost having been here before – not the usual one, connected with place, but connected with names – so familiar, and the outlines themselves so familiar, except that until now we had not known how they stood in the context of the rest of the city. –so this is Big Ben – so this is St. Paul’s – and we know they are, we have always known them, but we did not know that we would find them just here, with this office building on this side, and that park or square on the other. To walk down to the Embankment, and just happen to come upon Cleopatra’s Needle, standing so casually by the river. Somehow I had expected the great tourist attractions to be set apart, and gazed at always in awe. It is a jolt to realise that millions of people live and work alongside them every day of their lives, and take them so much for granted that they hardly see them. They leave the gawking to the tourists, who pour in by the busload, scatter their trash, and depart. The permanent thing is the life that goes on all around these not so very sacred objects, and of which they form a part.
Maureen is exploring the contents of an old black filing cabinet in her attic, which contains 55 years of her writing notes