Tuesday, 24 February 2009

Touchy/feely/smelly memories... things going round and round... the ramblings of the PFG on a mizzly day in Norfolk

Well, this is me, in 1971, on a cold and windy winter's evening in Cleveleys, on the Fylde coast of Lancashire, where I was then living. I was sorting through a box of photos recently, and looking at some especially old ones like this, and back into the mid-Sixties, it amazed me the memories some of them evoked. Not just for the time, the place, the person I was, the person I was with, but more tangible ones. The coat I am wearing was dark green PVC, and looking at the photo I am sure I could smell it, like a box of wax crayons when you first open it... I loved that coat. There was a photo of my first boyfriend (and you know who you are!) and I felt the rough, almost tweed-like texture of the trousers he was wearing, preparing to help my mother and I dig a rather large and unkempt back garden. There was one of me with my mother on holiday in Polperro, and back came the taste of fresh shrimp sandwiches, made in a kiosk on the quayside. Nothing similar has ever tasted like them since - or is that the tastebud equivalent of rose-tinted specs do you think? There were photos of my sons as babies, with the smell of Johnsons baby powder accompanying them. My late mother's photograph brought back the smell of 4711 and Coty face powder, whilst it was fine malt and black Sobrane cigarettes with my father. A photograph of me behind the wheel of a scarlet Ferrari and I could remember the day it was taken, and smell the warm leather of the seats.. also remembering how difficult a car it is to get in and out of and remain elegant! Amazing how we remember things, and how real the memories feel.

And of things that go round and round.... I learnt to knit over fifty years ago, and one thing I have never tackled is knitting in the round. Back then, there was no such thing as circular needles, women used sets of DPNs as they are called, double pointed needles, to knit socks, gloves and hats. Though I tried a few times, I never mastered it. Then in came circular needles, producing the same effect but with less hassle, dropping of needles and stitches. I always meant to have a go.. but then I discovered socks could be knitted on two needles, and although the imagery of a woman using four or five needles, or a small circular needle and hand-dyed wool to make a pair of cosy socks, is so comforting and cosy in a way that you want to try it. I never did. Then I found a book called BABY BEANIES by Amanda Keeys, with the most endearing little hats worn by equally endearing littlies. All knitted on twelve inch circular needles (which seem to be impossible to find, the nearest I have found them is sixteen inches) using just a small amount of wool. No messy side seam to knit up, seamless in every sense of the word possibly? Well, I shall see. I have decided small items like these are probably the best way to get started, for someone who has in the past, tended to be all fingers and thumbs whenever she has tried using more than two needles.

And talking of books and things going round and round... whilst browsing in the library I came across Simon Hoggart's book, 'The Cat That Could Open The Fridge' - 'A Curmudgeons' Guide to Christmas Round Robin Letters'. Opinions are divided on round robins.. many love them, whilst others hate them. I fall into the latter category, and tend to think that if you can't find the time/be bothered/care enough about the person to whom you are writing, to just write them an individual letter, and instead have to resort to typing out copies of the same old thing, just handwriting in the recipient's name, then I would rather you didn't bother, thanks all the same. Of course, this has meant a significant decrease in the number of letters and cards received and sent each Christmas in this household, but it certainly sorted out the friends from the mere acquaintances! Perhaps if they were really interesting, then it might be a different matter, but they tend to be full of the minutae of other people's lives, that only someone they love very much, or themselves (which maybe the same in some cases) would have the remotest interest in. Why would I want to know how many boxes of tissues poor Timmy used when he had a bad head cold, or why Jim has decided it's time to start walking to the train station each day instead of letting his long-suffering wife drive him? Why would I be interested in Fiona's long-running battle with slugs, or Peter's drama queen antics when someone parked their bike in his slot at the office? The simple answer of course, is that I'm not, in the least.

Tuesday, 10 February 2009

Reading matters

There comes a point when you have to stop buying books. All right, maybe that's too rash a statement, too radical an idea. But when your house is getting to the full-up point with books, and bookcases and book shelves, not to mention piles of books here and there (but never on windowsills), then you know it's time to reassess your book-buying habits.
Of the books shown here, part of my January reading, all bar one were impulse buys. I have to stop impulse buying... although having said that, none of these impulse buys was a disappointment, far from it. But that's not always the case. I fall for a cover, the blurb, and the book just has to come home with me. Often the inside fails to live up to either the expectations of the cover/blurb or my own imaginings. It turns out not to be a book to snuggle down with under a blanket on a cold winters' day, getting lost in the story contained within the covers, but instead a frustrating book I simply can't get into at all. I have now decided that I am going to concentrate on my favourite authors only, buying their latest books as and when they are issued. Trouble is, there are about twenty four of them!
So now I am going to the library again. I stopped going regularly a couple of years ago, only visiting when I had a book on order for researching an article, or of particular interest. I somehow lost the pleasure of going.. looking back I think I was going through some sort of a juvenile phrase of not wanting to give things back, like the books I had read and enjoyed. Now I am more sensible it seems, for a time at least, and happy to go and borrow, have a good read (or not, as the case may be, but at least it won't have cost me anything if it's a dud!) and then return the book for someone else to enjoy.
As for the books... 'The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society' by Mary Ann Shaffer, was the one non-impulse buy. So many friends had told me how enjoyable a book it was, and I had read several reviews, all praising it highly, and so it was on my 'to buy' list. And it didn't disappoint at all, and for those who love books written in the form of letters, this is a must. It has been written about so much, I won't go into the story here, suffice to say it was every bit as good as I'd been led to believe.
'The Butterfly House' by Marcia Preston is a book I read when it first came out three years ago, and was as good the second time around, so good it was read in a day.. one of those snuggle down wintry days, with snow falling outside. It begins with a stranger knocking on the door of Roberta Dutreau's house.. at least she thinks he's a stranger until recognition hits and she discovers he is the believed-dead father of her closest friend from schooldays, Cynthia. So we go back through her life, to those childhood days when she felt an outcast and Cynthia recognised a kindred spirit in her, two girls, both fatherless. Cynthia's mother is a lepidopterist, Roberta's mother an alcoholic, so hardly surprising that she gravitates towards the butterfly house and spends less time at her own. But one night a tragedy strikes, a blazing inferno destroys the butterfly house and kills Roberta's mother. Only the truth about who set the fire comes out at the end of the book.
'Salt' by Jeremy Page is one of those books where I was attracted to the cover, and then the setting, which happened to be the area I live in, and the fact that it had been described by Margaret Forster, one of my favourite writers, as 'striking, funny, terrifying... I admired and loved it'. It begins with a man being discovered buried up to his neck in mud on the salt marshes by a woman gathering samphire. She takes him into her hovel of a home, where they live until the end of the Second World War when he disappears in a makeshift boat. He leaves behind Lil, his newborn daughter. Four decades later, and her son, Pip, sets out to learn about his family's history and wonders if history is going to repeat itself with the madness that seemed to run in his family.
'American Wife' by Curtis Sittenfeld is supposedly based, loosely, on the wife of an American President of recent times. You get ideas of who it might be, think it has to be her... but who that is you would need to read it for yourself. As the blurb says, 'her husband, his parents, and certain prominent members of the administration are recognizable', maybe more so if you are American, but it did seem pretty obvious who it was by the end. A big read, about 'race, class, wealth and fate', not very political for all that it is about a First Lady and how she got there.
'Selective Memory' the autobiography of Katherine Whitehorn was an impulse buy, one of those occasions when going into an actual bookshop wins out over looking through lists at Amazon, as I might not have found this book doing that. And I am so glad I did, for it was as entertaining a read as she is to listen to.
Maybe I won't give up the impulse buys just yet then!