When the going gets tough there’s no better distraction than escaping back into a rose-tinted version of the past via a soak in my aforementioned claw-foot bath.
I’ve had some tricky work on of late; the kind of work that turns into an all consuming worry, so much so that it’s almost impossible to do your best work. A bit like the housemistress at boarding school who shone a torch in my eyes to check I was asleep, the manager of one particular job made me feel a bit like the proverbial rabbit in the headlights.
And so I’ve been climbing into a Time Machine most evenings and reading favourite books from my childhood (what could be more soothing?) such as Sheila Burnford’s The Incredible Journey, Kipling’s Just So Stories and The Adventure of Hadrian Hedgehog by Candida Lycett Green (John Betjeman’s daughter):
And that, said Lady Hedge-Hog
Pointing at a shrivelled shrew,
Is the Minister of birds-nests
Who likes a drink or two.
And over there, behind the flowers,
Lord Tortoise of that Ilk
Is making wild advances
At a shrimp in watered silk.
Don’t you just love it?
Then I went back to Vienna as there was more to explore. This time I found sachets of sugar brought back from a trip to Hungary along with some pretty stamps and a map of Lake Balaton, a flyer from Cafe Schwarzenberg in central Vienna where a friend and I once forgot to pay for our hot chocolates and never went back to correct the error (tut, tut), tickets from the opera (it seems I upgraded from a Stehplatz (standing place) to a 50 Schilling seat with a restricted view on one occasion, a beer mat from a restaurant in the shape of a fish, and a brochure of the beautiful Gmundner Keramik range (http://www.gmundner.at/en) – I gave my mother a jug in their Streublumen pattern back in 1982. Only last year I found two matching pieces in the trash and treasure market in Bentleigh – a napkin holder and a candle holder. How small the world can seem.
Then there were more letters – from a boy who had met me in a plane on the way to a French exchange in Paris and wrote to me a year later because he was bored, from Jerry with whom I had my first kiss. He was mad about me and maddening with it. Everything in his world was either goofy or neat and he would score things out of ten on a goof-o-meter or a neat-o-meter. Needless to say, a P.S. on his letter dated 18th August 1978 ran: You’re very neat – 10 out of 10 on the neat-o-meter.
I think I would have been very happy as a museum curator poring over historical documents, objects, letters and eye-witness accounts of lives and events. I think I may have found it more fulfilling than working as a freelance writer where every assignment involves writing to order and strict word counts and deadlines; it’s all so very straight-jacketing and left brain.
And it’s a shame I’m not famous because I have enough letters, diaries and journals to write a memoir or series of memoirs. I had such fun last reading snippets of travel diaries: “For lunch we had very French prawns as their uncle had caught them and they were boiled alive.” (I was 14); “V.brash people on the plane – as soon as we were in the air they got out their booze and got rather pissed and smoked in the non-smoking areas. One man came and plonked himself on Dad’s knee.” (This on a trip to Southern Spain with Mum and Dad in the 1979/80). On that same trip the oven blew up singeing the front of Mum’s hair and we were offered the ubiquitous flan, as in crème caramel, for dessert every night!
Then in 1995 on an organised tour of “Middle Eastern Highlights” I got a bit stuck with Pete from Sarfend (Southend) – “Pete danced just like a hippy, holding onto his belt and diving forwards or playing an imaginary guitar.” I also mention a character called David, a teacher from a smart boys’ school who wore his jacket and tie teamed with a woolly hat even when we went on rugged walks. But most annoying of all was Bob who, swot-like, had read up on all the Dead Sea Scroll literature, barged into every conversation, demanded ketchup on his eggs every morning and insisted on ordering beef at every restaurant as he couldn’t eat it back home due to the BSE scandal.
But the thing I enjoyed most in my home-made museum was my autograph book from the 70s. We all used to write poems and witty verses in each other’s books. I suppose that today we would be uploading pictures to Facebook and madly liking each other’s posts. How much more treasured is a little book with orange-coloured pages filled with signatures of my erstwhile classmates and people around me than a here-today-gone-tomorrow online post? Most of the rhymes concerned lavatories, lovers and garden gates (love may be blind but the neighbours ain’t), boys, the physics teacher or worse, but they were all harmless and affectionate fun. One of my favourites is from an elderly man who lived in our village – Norman Spence.