All posts by adrian

Going with Grandma to the grocer’s shop

Tuesday 23rd August   

Going with Grandma to the grocer’s always seemed an adventure.  Maybe because I was at school most of the time, so I only accompanied her a few times a year.  And do I hear you saying to yourselves “What is so remarkable about going to a grocer’s?”  Well, this was way before the advent of Supermarkets, and looking back one wonders how on earth we all managed without them.  Let me set the scene for you.  Ray and sons was in Putney High Street, and I am sure that Ray was the surname; today’s familiarity of shop names was unheard of in the mid fifties.  The shop was really quite large, but was arranged totally differently from today’s serried aisles straining with everything under the son.  Ray’s sold food only, and not even fresh vegetables, you got those in the greengrocers, or meat, which was only available at the butchers. Every high street had a full complement of food shops; one would never have imagined them all under one roof.  Despite this the shop was really quite large, cavernous, I seem to remember. Everything was in different sections; teas, cheese, bacon and tinned goods all had their departments. Grandma would present a list to the floor manager, who would walk around the shop parcelling out Grandma’s orders.  Grandma would be sitting in a high backed wicker chair to one side, occasionally being called over to adjudicate on the size or quality of the wedge of cheddar that was cut for her with a cheese-wire.  The tea was made up to her own blend – two parts Ceylon and one of Earl Grey, stirred and poured into a tea block, where a small sheet of brown paper had been folded to make a paper box for the leaves to be poured into, and sellotaped over to seal it.  The bacon was sliced to her preferred thickness, and weighed in front of her. Each department would scribble sales dockets and pop them into little cages that were transported by some sort of pulley system up the walls and across the ceiling on a network of wires to the cashier’s office where the bill would be totted up.  A small army of shop assistants had beavered away to prepare her weekly order.  The bill paid we would head for home and a small lad would peddle furiously past us, (not forgetting to doff his cap) with our groceries in a cardboard box balanced in a frame in front of the handlebars, as he wibble-wobbled his way to our house, where we would find the box on our doorstep.

The first supermarket opened on the High street sometime in the early sixties. I can remember the excitement of actually pushing your own trolley around the store; picking your own goods; loading it onto the conveyor belt, and carrying it home yourself. Rays closed down a few months later, of course.

Reflections on the passing of time

Monday 22 August   

And another week has gone by; they just seem to fly away these days.  Everyone says the same thing, but I wonder if it is just our perception.  Maybe people always felt that time was going too fast, that one week was beginning again almost before the last one was gone.  One glances at the news and yes, the wretched football season has started again, so we know now that the summer is almost gone already.  Not that we have had that much of a summer this year, what started with such promise in April has fizzled out into cloudy, warm and squally days. But I don’t expect that that will stop the Met. Office, or whoever compiles these statistics’ these days, to gaily announce in January of next year that actually it was again one of the hottest years on record.

Possibly the complete saturation of our lives by news and media, means that everything that happens every year, in itself, and purely because it has happened again, becomes news, and we are reminded once again, that the first cricket test has started, or that a bank holiday, with its’ unavoidable traffic jams is soon to be upon us once more.  Or whatever the news organisations choose to fill up their ever-expanding schedules with, in itself, because it is “on the news”, becomes a reminder of the passing of time.

And can you remember this feeling as a child?  No, everything was new and vibrant then.  Christmases and Birthdays seemed ages apart; and almost took us by surprise, although we had been anticipating them for weeks. And the idea, the very notion that we would one day be grown-up, seemed impossible.  Could we ever wait for that length of time?  But before we knew it we were adults, and the lazy innocence of being a child was behind us, and we were finally of our time, on time for everything and constantly aware that we didn’t have enough time, and that time itself was going faster and faster.

And even when one really has very little of importance to do, the days helter-skelter by, and one finds oneself again with that Monday morning feeling.  So cheer up now, in no time at all it will be Friday and your working week will be behind you, you will be another week older, and in no time at all you will be in your sixties and then in your seventies, and looking back and wondering where on earth the time went.

Reflections on writing

Sunday 21st August   

A couple of years ago I attended an event at the South Bank, it was a sort of “meet the author”.  And one of my very favourites was the subject, Kazuo Ishiguru.  I had first got into him and his immaculately written novels with “The Remains of the Day”, the novel of which was far better than the film which followed, as is usually the case.  I then read backwards his earlier works, and although he writes slowly and there are large gaps between his books I have followed him ever since. My very favourite is, of course, “Never let me go”, which again has recently been turned into a film, which I think I will pass on, unless it comes on the television at some point, but as I do not subscribe to Sky that may not happen.

Kazuo, a surprisingly young looking Kazuo, and immaculate speaker, was promoting a small volume of vignettes he had just published, “Nocturnes”; actually I found these tedious and disappointing, but that is another story.  Kazuo read a couple of excerpts, and then there was a question and answer session with the audience.  No, I didn’t ask a question, none actually occurred to me at the time.  But I was rather struck by one of his answers. He was asked for any advice to aspiring writers.  You can imagine how my ears pricked up; I was indeed aspiring, and was about a third of the way through Catherine’s Story.  Kazuo’s answer, after at least two minutes of silence while he constructed his answer, was that the aspiring writer had to decide whether they wanted to write, or to be a writer.

At the time I couldn’t quite get it, surely they were synonymous, or as near as damn it.  But lately I have been thinking about this. I have always, though sporadically I must admit, written, and I have always longed to be a writer.  But I am not sure if that desire was more a desire to be known as a writer than to be a writer by profession, or rather needing to be a writer, regardless of the end result.  And I think that that was what Kazuo meant.

Easy for him to say that now that he is famous and generally acknowledged as a great writer; far harder for me to answer, of course.

Just finished reading another Le Carre

Saturday 20th August   

I have just finished the latest John Le Carre, “Our kind of Traitor”.  Well, to tell the truth, although he is a consummate writer, and can conjure up characters and plots with ease, I was left disappointed by it all.  And it had started off so brightly, very cleverly, being told almost backwards was intriguing.  But about three quarters of the way in it just seemed to get too bogged down for its’ own good.  And the ending was nothing less than awful.  I really don’t mind the habit of certain modern novelists to leave things hanging a bit.  Supply your own ending if you like, sort of thing.  Or the false ending, which you can see through, and realise that that isn’t the ending at all; you have to go back a few pages to see what the author was really letting you know, I can admire that sort of cleverness. But this ending just left me high and dry, without a clue as to why.  Or actually far too many clues, far too many possibilities to actually care.  And now I realise that although the story was well told (you can at least rely on Le Carre for that) I hadn’t been caring for the characters at all.  I had started off caring, but somehow he lost me.  And there were too many unresolved issues, too many characters that you were left wondering about, and especially the one character (or two if you count the man) who were not part of Le Carre’s brilliantly imagined underworld of spies and criminals, who were ordinary people who had somehow blundered into this murky world.  Where did they go from here?   And just as importantly where did I, as reader, go from here.  Well nowhere I am afraid, and I might just be a bit more circumspect before I buy his next one.

Next up, if you are interested is “The Eustace Diamonds” by that most wonderful of Victorian novelists Anthony Trollope.

I am really enjoying writing

Friday 19th August   

I find that I am really enjoying writing at the moment.  This blog, I mean.  This daily little message from me to you, well, to how ever many of you there may be out there reading it.  And that is part of the excitement – the not really knowing if anyone is reading.  When I was writing the book, Catherine’s Story, I was so engrossed in the making a thing out of it, you know, a real story, that it was actually almost hard work.  I used to get up quite early around five-thirty and with a pot of black coffee, would carefully re-read yesterday’s writing.  Then I would start to edit yesterday’s piece slightly, not really changing the meaning, just a bit of punctuation.  Watching that not too many sentences started with an and (a bad habit of mine), maybe exchanging a word that sounded a bit too hackneyed with something a bit more original, sometimes getting rid of a whole sentence, or expanding one slightly.  Then a third re-read or a fourth until I was happy.  This also managed to get me into the “zone”, I became focused enough to carry on and write some more.  But I was always conscious of the need to carry the story somewhat, I couldn’t let my characters wander off, I had to keep them and especially the me, the Catherine of the story, corralled.  I also had to think a chapter or so ahead all the time, and try to steer events that way. So, although I was creating it, it also was controlling me to an extent too.  I could never really relax with it.  And the anxiety, the worry of what people would think, whether I would actually finish it, and the biggest fear of all, of course, was it any good?  Because foremost of my concerns was always that it should be good, or reasonably good, at any rate.  Oh, now that it is published I can see so many errors, I wish I could sit down and re-write the whole wretched thing, but it is too late for that now.  Far too late; it will have to sink or swim on its’ own now.  Hopefully you will throw it a friendly life jacket or two before it slips under the waves.

Now, with this blog, I can write whatever I like, and it doesn’t matter.

So, blibbity-blibbity-blob to you!!!

Sorry, I’ll try not to be so skittish tomorrow.  Promise.

The first time I visited Biba

Thursday 18th August   

As you know I had been quite impressed by the wallpaper in Adrian’s little flat. He told me that it came from Biba, a new shop I had started to notice popping up in magazine articles and had even been mentioned in the Evening News a couple of times.  The wallpaper was a rich dark chocolate brown with large swirls of fine gold lines running through it in great loops and arcs and, the effect was amazing.  It was like nothing I had ever seen; completely contemporary yet with an almost antique feel at the same time.  I was intrigued; I had heard that the shop had some brilliant new fashions, but was completely unaware that it sold wallpaper and paint too.  We decided to visit and took a couple of buses to Kensington. The shop was almost opposite Derry and Toms that I had been taken to year after year to buy my clothes in as a child. But Kensington was fast changing from the staid Edwardian shops I had been accustomed to; it was now a hodgepodge of sixties psychadelia and full of tie-die T shirts, and tiny shops with joss-sticks burning in profusion.  Oh, and loud music too, lots of it blaring from every doorway.  It was quite intimidating, but Adrian felt quite at home here, as if this was his milieu, his spiritual home.  Across the street the large department stores were still catering to the upper and upper middle-class ladies that Grandma purported to be, and right opposite and almost squeezing them out was all of this, well, hippie stuff I suppose; a very disconcerting mix.

The shop itself was amazing, it was on about four floors with a sweeping staircase like some cornucopia literally spilling clothes and hats and coats along its banisters.  The walls and the ceiling were all painted in loud colours; bright yellows and greens and sky blues, and there was some sort of bubble machine too, making huge wobbly bubbles that floated in the smoky air, because almost everyone was smoking, hopefully just tobacco.  I was too star-struck to really look at the clothes, but they were again a strange mix of the very modern, bias-cut and outrageous hard colours, along with floaty-drifting silks and chiffons and full-length dresses that shouted out “thirties cocktail bars” at you.  And all the assistants were stick-thin and elegant and had masses of make-up on, especially eye make-up, looking like smudged panda’s with sharp cheekbones.  It was really the most amazing shop I had ever been in, and I would return many times just to marvel at the ever changing scene but I don’t remember actually ever buying a thing there.


A strange quiescent mood

Wednesday 17th August

And a strange quiescent mood has settled on me.  I got quite animated writing about Aunt Maud’s house, it brought back with it so many memories I thought I really had consigned to bed ages ago. And also memories of Grandma; Grandma as she used to be, before she got old and crotchety, before we fell out – well, drifted apart really, as there was no falling out at all.  Well, not until the end, until we were so far apart, that, as Humpty-Dumpty found out, there was no putting us together again.  Grandma used to even be fun at one time, quite jolly when I was a little girl, despite, what I had no real understanding of at the time, our slightly straightened circumstances.   She was always pleased to see me when I would come home from school; always interested in me, intrigued to find out how school had been, what I had learned.  And I would tell her everything, all about this or that teacher, or about Jennie and her perfect looks, or chubby little Gwennie and her boyish ways.  And we would sit and she would help me with my homework, or what passed for it back then.  Not that she was that much help really, but she would always correct my English grammar, and was bright as a button when it came to maths.  Right to the end she could do mental arithmetic far faster than most people.  Nowadays even I have gotten used to using a calculator, and even back in my hotel days working in Accounts we had adding machines, with rows of digits you had to press, and a big handle you pulled down and the machine would whirr and clunk and the answer would be printed out on a two inch wide ribbon of paper.  Oh what a godsend those machines were when you had a hundred entries to add up in a ledger, because this was way before computers and Excel spreadsheets were in common usage.  A computer was unheard of, we had seen them on the television and they were the size of a room, with big spools of tape that spun around as the mighty machine did its thing.  Exactly what it was doing nobody seemed to know, of course, but in awed silence we were mightily impressed.  And now they are everywhere, in every little gadget, in every household appliance, and even the delivery man, who has just delivered my latest book from Amazon has a handheld computer which I am even supposed to sign with a little plastic stick on the two inch wide screen.  Quite amazing; one wonders where it will all end.

A visit to Aunt Maud’s – part two.

Tuesday 16th August   

The train chugged its’ way slowly through the west London suburbs, and more and more fields appeared between the houses, and then it was all fields, neat little pocket handkerchiefs of fields lined with high hedges, and copses, lots of copses everywhere.  And in no time we had arrived in Cheltenham, with its’ white Georgian houses and narrow little streets.  And the sun was shining where we had left the rain behind in London.  The taxi drew up at Aunt Maud’s house; it was not Georgian at all, but Edwardian though still rather grand with a long drive and there must have been at least five bedrooms.   Aunt Maud was terribly proper, and formal, and far more old-fashioned than Grandma herself.  Her husband had died many years ago and her children all grown up and gone too.  She lived with a lady’s companion, a sort of housekeeper and general servant, but who was on an almost equal standing to Aunt Maud.  I was told to call her Miss Nicholls, but my aunt called her Mary.  Mary (Miss Nicholls to me) accompanied Aunt Maud everywhere, and nowadays I suppose one would suspect them of some Sapphic connection, but I really don’t think that was the case at all.  They weren’t even particularly friendly to each other, Miss Nichols rarely seemed to join in the conversation, so that although the pretence was otherwise, the relationship was quite clear; Miss Nicholls was a servant after all.

Aunt Maud’s house was even more of a time capsule than ours; real Persian carpets, where ours was an expensive copy, the sofas were straight backed, horse-hair filled and the sides were lashed to the back with gold braided ropes.  The bedrooms were freezing, no heating at all, and we all had stone hot water bottles which were too hot to put your feet on, but at least warmed up the musty and damp sheets.  I had to be on my best behaviour in front of Aunt Maud, not a particular difficult task, but I was lectured constantly by Grandma on what to say and how to behave at table.  Despite all of this I really enjoyed our trips to Cheltenham, and it always seemed a special treat whenever Aunt Maud’s was mentioned.  I suppose it was the acting, the putting on of a performance that I enjoyed the most, the complicity as we all conspired to pretend that life could really still be lived like this.  I sometimes wonder if Aunt Maud was aware that she was acting too.


I have occasionally been accused of being a snob

Catherine’s blog – day sixteen

Monday August 15th

I have occasionally been accused of being a snob, not the nicest of accusations, I must admit, but I think that often people mistake reserve or diffidence for some sort of elevated snootiness.  I am, as almost everyone seems to be nowadays, middle class.  I was born into the middle classes, unlike many who now seem to have acquired their middleclass-ness, much as one might acquire the habit of wearing sensible shoes; it just seems to fit better that way.  And this classlessness, or middleclass-ness, is by far preferable to the awful class restrictions I grew up with; the aristocracy, the county set, the professional and the lower managerial middle classes, the white collar and the blue collar workers, and the unashamedly working classes, and all gradations in-between.  Now; apart from a few who consider themselves upper class at the top, and those that do not want to be known as, but undoubtedly are, ‘chavs’, at the bottom, the majority of us are middle class.  We are just  as comfortable buying ciabatta as white sliced, we holiday all over the place without looking down on those who stay in Britain, we buy ready meals from M. & S, we are quite at home in any ethnic restaurant and we watch less and less television, and spend more and more time on the internet.  I like the anonymity this brings, the sense of unquestioning where you came from or who your parents were, that we all enjoy.  So call me a snob at your peril.  Discerning, slightly reserved, outwardly comfortable in myself- yes, but in no way do I consider myself superior, far from it – if you only knew how inferior I feel to almost everyone else.  That is why I try to hide it with my old-fashioned looks, and my sometimes pre-occupied air.  So despite my own declaration you should not always judge a book by its cover.  But I sincerely hope you do mine, and decide to buy it.

A visit to Aunt Maud

Catherine’s blog – day fifteen

Sunday August 14th

And here is one of those little snippets of memory:

It is 1959 and I am 13, we are all living happily (or so I supposed back then) in Putney, the memories of sunny days in Cyprus far behind me, and getting harder to remember  by the day, stuck here in this pale and rainy city.  We are off to visit Aunt Maud in Cheltenham, we only go about once every two or three years; so at my age each visit seems like a little adventure.  We take a taxi to Paddington, heaven knows how we could have managed it all on the tube, as Grandma has insisted in taking not only clothes for every contingency, including tropical sunshine and monsoon rain, but also a whole suitcase of shoes, and one for towels too. (as Aunt Maud is not known for her generosity in that department)  We are only going for a week but we seem to have enough luggage for at least a month.  Added to that my mother disappears at busy-bustling Paddington , and catches up with the porter pushing our haphazardly loaded trolley just as our train is announced, clutching a veritable stack of periodicals and magazines and even a couple of paperback books.  As soon as she spots a W. H. Smith she turns into some demented reader who simply must empty the shelves of all the shop possesses.  Grandma is fussing with the two or three large hold-alls perched on the trolley, trying to locate the thermos and sandwiches, if only to reassure herself that, yes indeed, she had packed them.  “At least we don’t have to rely on the Buffet car.” She chirps.  I am lost in admiring the latticework struts and pillars which seem to disappear, high-high up above us amidst a whole cathedral’s worth of smutty green and black glass.  I am turning and turning slowly round and round lost in the kaleidoscope of engineering, and wondering how on earth they ever managed it.  Grandma is busy instructing the porter which carriage we are in, and my mother is already surreptitiously flicking through some gardening book.  We are just settled into our compartment, with Grandma’s assortment of Gladstone bags and hold-alls safely in the overhead string-woven luggage racks; my mother deep into one of her paperback books in the opposite corner, and me, testing out the bounciness of the long upholstered seat.  I rub a space out of the yellowed grimy window by spitting on a hanky and rubbing, the whistle blows three high pitched blasts, the guard’s flag is raised and slowly we lurch forwards and out of Isombard Kingdom Brunel’s masterpiece of iron and glass, out past the dirty blackened brick rows of London houses, and away.

Enough for now, but I will finish this piece later. (Promise)