Follow this link to the Elizabeth-Ann charity and follow the one below to my food blog! My Mother's Kitchen, my Father's Garden is the name of the blog (and, in two volumes, my books). At this blog you may also see a small selection of my freelance journalism work.

Friday, 13 August 2010

Would that it were so

"It is more remarkable for the quality of its doubt than of its faith" (T.S. Eliot, The Sacred Wood, writing on Tennyson's poem 'In Memoriam')

Oh dear, oh dear. This was not going to be an easy road.Maybe it just wasn't for some. 

Mother was an atheist, father was an ardent member of the Church of England with designs, in retirement, of being a non stipendiary minister. An interesting dichotomy at home, then.

"Because your mother is a good person, she will surely go to Heaven", he said to the concerned young teenager, his daughter. She, however, couldn't find any scriptural authority for this one, although she did think that she might have got it wrong somehow. Typical.

When daddy was dying, he took communion at home; her mother encouraged it, but could not bear to be in the room. Instead, she sat in the sun room sipping a sherry. Rose couldn't decide whether to laugh or cry, so just sat still and mute.

There were memories of a darkened church at Christmas; thoughts of something moving that was good and Holy and which loved her and wanted her for its own. But the feeling faded as the lights went on. Later, experiments with a Fellowship group so that, as a young teenager, she was encouraged to stand alone and be baptised. Consternation again, though. It seemed that everyone in the cavernous room had the gifts of prophecy or of tongues. Occasionally, one would fall on the floor in rapture. Here we go again, was her only thought - although that was not what she said out loud. Desperate to feel what they felt, she let the pastor take her head in his hands. 

"The Holy Spirit is with you. Can you feel it?"

"Yes" she said, almost convinced by the fervent believer, but afterwards realising that it was a relief to leave. Again, not something to be said aloud.

Ah but back to the organised church some time later. All went well for a while. Baptisms of the babies, good wishes - but no. After a while, doubt prevailed. This time, though, it seemed to be more those around her who did not, in some ways, approve of Rose; what seemed to be a move in the right direction -of acceptance and being held within the body of a church-- began to fail. So sad. Was she too radical? Did she appear too full of nervous energy? Someone wanting to make changes and my goodness the children did not always know to be silent during communion? No harm meant, only concern for the future of the single church. The net effect, as before: no spiritual home other than a poetry book. 

And that is where we leave Rose. Hand off the plough; hoping, in her childish way, for an epiphany. And in this, I know she is not alone.

Thursday, 12 August 2010

At the Shalimar Gardens

At the Shalimar gardens, the sun blazed down and her parents glowered at each other. She was familiar with these unkind silences; above all, her mother's eyes looking with resentment at her father. A look that says that "Though I am here, in this fine garden of cool white marble and lush vegetation, my adventure is tarnished because I chose you". 

Maya wondered, yet again, why her mother could not appreciate the man: hard working, diligent and loving. As a teenager, she could surely sense that her mother was altogether sharper than her father.In many ways, he could not keep up his wife's drive and intelligence. What could Maya do but observe and try and provide some solace for him as he laboured away.

This time, though, she saw her father's gaze drift. She followed it and it took her to a willowy lady, in a simple blue sari, who seemed to be charged with some repairs to the red and green floral designs on some of the little doorways on the garden's periphery. Maya felt, with a peculiar shiver, that the lady was truly lovely. That there was something lithe and at ease in the body and in the limpid dark eyes that turned to meet hers with a smile. May could not help but make the comparison with the stiffness of her mother - so beautiful, herself, but so affected by minor slights and what she saw as the disappointments of life.

There was joy in the brushstroke and in the movement of wrist and hand; in the way that the girl was absorbed in the task - and in the way she adjusted her sari to allow better movement when she needed to reach up. Maya knew that her father saw all this, too.

Well, her father was a man of principle. With reponsibilities and family, he would not leave for a girl with kind eyes who thought him charming. Instead, he might be ground down a little further by the woman he married and so, just now,  Maya was glad that her father's mind could drift, while he watched a girl with coltish limbs and deft fingers and as he saw her disappear behind the fretwork at the Shalimar gardens as she made her way home.

The Shalimar Gardens are in Lahore, Pakistan. They are ornate formal gardens, built by Jehangir, Mughal successor to Shah Jehan, who built the Taj Mahal.

Sunday, 8 August 2010

Walton West

Back from a trip. Hiatus in stories. Here you are.  Just something simple and personal.

Walton West church is hidden away down a tiny lane on the Pembrokeshire coast; one field across is its churchyard, a broad sweep of sea beyond it and gnarled crab apples trees shaped by the sea wind. 

Here: Laura Margaret Llewellyn- my great grandmother- and her daughter, Florence Beckett, my grandmother. She was born in a house just by the beach you see here. But beyond in the churchyard, my best beloved John Llewellin Beckett, uncle, adopter of his own middle name (I don't know if his mother ever gave him one), but with the spelling he preferred. There are Llewellyns thick and fast in this place. And if you come here with the indomitable auntie Betty, she can take you round to graves old and new -- even explain the use of an epitaph or tell you a potted life story. That's if she has time. She does not care, she will say, to be morbid.

Roland Beckett, my grandfather and Florence, my grandmother, gave life to twelve children in all, with ten surviving childhood. With them all, the tough, kind figure that was Nanny, great grandmother. Always she lived with them. And I grew up with a vague idea that grandmother and grandfather had a bit of a difficult relationship now and then. I know that, when all the children were grown and most had left home, Roland and Florence divorced. Let's hope he found happiness in some other arms: a woman in Tenby about whom I know nothing.  But she was subsequent, don't you know.

In farms from the Swansea valley (for my mother was really a Valley girl by birth, you might say), to Kidwelly and dotted about Pembrokeshire; from Wiston to Creswell Key - my grandmother's last house before she came to live with her large brood - my mother and her brothers and sisters lived a demanding but loving life. I long to hear the stories of all this; I grew up always wanting ten children, after all. 

Last night, I heard about how they swam and splashed in a bathing pool in fields in Wiston; how my uncle John could not buy an engagement ring for my auntie Betty because, as he told her, he had bought a cow instead; how my great grandmother was so ravshing that she stopped traffic in Tenby main street and how --  well, you don't need to know all this. It's just that when you come from a big family, stories come thick and fast and I am grateful for their telling. And yet, much as I love this church on this peaceful little lane, I'd like them all back -- all those grandparents and cousins and uncles and aunts and great uncles - in one place, again - if I could. And just once - in case they all argued.

Friday, 30 July 2010

On finding true love

For Katherine Thomas.

Walter looked a little like a duck. His nose was beaky, he had an unattractive gait which was, you've guessed it, more of a waddle really. For a man, he was short, but compensated for it with good cheer.

In Walter, there was not a whiff of arrogance or the slight bitterness one sometimes sees in those who have a chip on their shoulder due to perceived misfortune. And there was one more thing: Walter was very, very funny. He had the sort of timing which would cause his friends - and he had many- to double up; to have painful sides. He was also articulate, without being showy. Walter loved words. Felt them in in his mouth like something smooth and minty (a humbug) or rough and to be handled carefully (managed carefully with your tongue).

Walter's mother loved him dearly; to his father, he had always been a bit of disappointment, though dad tried not to show it. Walter was clumsy and, in those who did not know him, he might cause giggling or the foolish scorn of those who really should know better but don't. Walter, also, had never had a girlfriend - but he lived in hope. Waddling on through and making people laugh.

That day, on his way to work -Walter restored fine musical instruments - he had an odd sensation that today was different; an inchoate feeling - not of dread, but of a sort of warmth spreading up through him. One might say a new kind of happiness. There was a woman waiting for him at the shop; she had a cello and was -did you see this coming?- tall and willowy. She had the gentle flush of the English rose and strawberry blonde hair; she wore a white coat. Almost, he dared say, a little like a swan. Walter didn't mean to look a little too intently, but then she was, to his eyes, heart-meltingly lovely.

Yes, I can restore your cello to health. It will take this long; these are the procedures I am likely to follow and yes - it is a truly fine instrument which you're so right to treat with reverence and want to bring back to its former glory. He was avoiding her eyes for fear of blushing, but, when he looked up, she was staring intently at him. There was an awkward silence. Now or never. He wouldn't die if she laughed in his face.

"I have a break at about 11. I wonder if you would like to come and have coffee with me. At the new shop over the road?"

Well now. They were both blushing. Later they drank their coffee and talked and talked and the next day, too. Like him, she loved to play with words; to handle them and feel their heft. And Walter worked on the cello until he had brought it back to clear, resonant notes and a burnished beauty. She struck some notes right there in the shop and he almost cried. But she stopped him, right there, with a kiss and the world around went silent.

Yes, they do make a funny-looking couple, the swan and the duck. But they laugh constantly and make the kind of music that reverberates long. With them, you hear -no feel- the grace notes: those notes between notes which you take in on a visceral level. There are three little ducks or swans. They have their mother's grace and their father's waddle - a curious combination, but a good one.

So, ladies, if he looks like a duck, but he makes you double up laughing. If he can nurse something tired and jaded back to life. If he talks and his words do not enervate but buoy you up. If he smiles at everyone and there is no tiring bitterness about the man, then kiss him and be transported. You know I'm right.

Tuesday, 27 July 2010

Berenson looked back


A light drizzle settled in and, as Berenson walked home from an unremarkable job in the city, the darkness began to fall over London in November. 

From office to tube and from tube to the beginning of his walk home, he was content enough. Even with the grey evening, the drizzle was refreshing on the skin after a day in the office. He observed familiar faces on his way, nods of acknowledgement and, to a certain extent, he fancied, of understanding. The day had gone tolerably well.

Walking up the final small spiral staircase from the tube station, though, Berenson was struck with an odd feeling: of the familiar being just a little off beam. He couldn't put a finger on it, but it made him shudder. Thinking carefully, the white tiles looked perhaps a little yellowing; the steps altogether dustier. Now and then, he felt someone brush against his shoulder, but yet he had no sense of someone quite so close to him as he made the final ascent to the street. Again, he shuddered.

Walking in the direction of home, he stepped first into the everyday sight of a London street, with its selection of shops. He bought an evening newspaper, rolled it up and put it under his arm. Again, the shops looked a little different. There was an unseemly and garish quality to the lighting and the bright displays of goods, even in the small newsagents where he stopped every evening. He had never noticed that before, always enjoying the convivial warmth of the shops and shopkeepers as he walked home.

He reached the end of the road, where shops began to give way to the residential streets. Berenson had an odd feeling - almost like the warmth of someone's breath on his back. He shook it off. "Maybe" he thought "I have one of my heads coming on. I've been working pretty hard " But the feeling did not abate: it grew stronger and more disconcerting.

Rounding the corner into his own street, it occurred to Berenson that he had yet to turn round. To have done so would have been to give credence to what he thought a foolish sensation. So he walked on. But, as he did so, he was conscious of the increasing closeness of another individual and, also, of footsteps behind him. Yet, when he stopped, so did the sensation and the hoof taps. It was true: they did sound very like a shod horse striking a road. Moving on again, walking more quickly, the steps and the individual kept pace with him. Looking around, he had the bizarre sensation that he was seeing everything as it always was - but through a glass darkly. 

Walk on, walk on. Did he hear a laugh behind him? Was the breathing full and throaty? And did the man behind him identify himself as Berenson when, unable to bear it any more, Berenson looked back? 

Daylight saw Berenson travelling, as usual, down a pleasant city street and past shops doing brisk trade and on the London underground. All was well. But tonight a story would appear in his newspaper about the diligent, well respected man, found cold and dead in his street last night. And the man who cut him down would, while there was time, sit in Berenson's favourite chair and tweak at what we know of our everyday familiar world. He would shuffle off his steel-tapped shoes, brush a little lint from his fine dark suit. And he would laugh.

Sunday, 25 July 2010

On Chesil Beach

 The beach recedes five metres over a century; it's diminishing slowly, slowly under your feet.

There are people about on this summer's day, but you are all alone, sun on your back, sharp sea smell and digging your feet into the shingle: aligning your body once your feet are dug in right. You notice immediately the stiffness in the lower spine; a bit of a twist there. You must correct it -easily and satisfyingly done with the help of the smooth warm stones. This is the kind of thing you forget to do in quotidian existence.

Walking is hard-going along the beach, but it pays off with the tingle of calf muscles. Although you didn't feel much breeze, you see that you hair is all tangled as you get back to the car some time later. Salt on the lips.

There must be lots of people here on holiday but, on the routes you take, you seem to meet no-one. Climb up to the Hardy point. No one else. Much later, travelling nearer to home, not a soul is there at East Coker to follow the trail T.S Eliot left for us in 'The Four Quartets'. It seems right to visit his grave. There are some white roses laid on it. Would that there were lilac, too.

Take your time and travel slowly. You have been in knots and unravelling. This has happened before.  


 Chesil Beach recedes five metres in a century. It is best that you move forward.

Thank you to Alexbrn and Marilyn at Flickr for the shots. x