That moment when…


I did try, I really did. When I was a teenager. It just didn’t work out.

James Fenimore Cooper’s masterpiece, “The Last of the Mohicans”, failed to thrill my soul. It was dense, old-fashioned language, made all the harder by not being dense, old-fashioned British English. As a witty individual once said of the UK and the US, we are two nations divided by a common language.

As a teenager I tried to read a few classic American novels. “To kill a mockingbird” was the best of them. I understood class and race in my British way, and racism is pretty much racism whatever the language.  I simply did not understand “Catcher in the Rye” as I knew nothing about American colleges or culture. We were not so very Americanised in the 1970s, and teenagers still talked about takeaways, films and wardrobes (with or without magical lands), rather than take-outs, movies and closets. Also we drank tea much more seriously than coffee.

Don’t get me wrong, I don’t have it in for America. It’s just different. I believe Americans are as bemused by our quaint customs as we are by their tendency to eat with their fingers. To be fair to them, most primates do that. Meanwhile, over this side of the alleged Pond, we not only eschew digitally aided digestion, but have enhanced the gustatory gadgets to such an extent that you can end up with more knives and forks per place setting than there are place settings at the Lord Mayor’s Banquet. And apparently using them correctly matters. Well, it may do to some people, but I’m a slob and as long as I start from the outside and work inwards, and can tell a fish knife from a butter knife, I feel I have done my duty to the God-given right and established order.

So there I was, in blissful ignorance of Mohicans, first, last or otherwise. At least, beyond the eponymous punk hairstyle that is, which looked amazing, but my hair would never have allowed it, being all floppy and suchlike. It won’t hold a perm, let alone behave for mere styling gel. It’s a problem alright. Oh the trauma!

Then they invented Daniel Day Lewis and I was made aware of certain key plot elements. One was that he looked awfully pretty running in slow motion. Oh yes. Although I’m not sure if that was in the book.

The other was that I shared a moment of heartbreak with Hawkeye.

If you are unaware of that twist, dear reader, then look away now. It’s the bit at the end, where Chingachgook, the Mohican Chief, mourns the loss of his biological son, and declares that he is now the last of the Mohicans. At which point his adopted son, Hawkeye, breaks his heart; because this is proof that he was never quite a true Mohican even to Chingachgook, no matter how hard he tried. He was alien, outcast, Other.

At least that is my understanding of the story. It may not be true, but bear with me, because this is what I identify with, having had a similar moment in my early childhood.

Let me take you back to the 1960s and the suburbs west of London.

My grandmother was a central figure in my early years. She died when I was 10 but until then she had lived with us and effectively been a mother figure (my own mother being rather ambiguous about motherhood, to put it kindly).  I adored her. I was her special baby. Sometimes she got confused and thought I actually was her little girl, my auntie Win, who had died when she was 7.

Sometimes, if I woke her up during her afternoon nap by breathing too loudly or dropping a teddy, she would stare at me in a confused way.

“Win!” she would say, a little bemused. “Winnie, is that you?”

“No, Grandma,” my heartless little self replied. “I’m EBL. Winnie died.”

“Oh yes,” she would say, and go rather quiet.

“You’ve got me, Grandma,” I would add.

“Oh yes,” she would say again, and give me a hug so I couldn’t see her cry. But I did.

Grandma knew all sorts of things, like how many beans make five and what happened to Don’t Care. She also knew lots of good songs to sing. She had grown up in Holloway, North London, and had a cheery London accent. At Christmas she got tiddly on advocaat, and had to be taken up to bed, singing happily. She taught me all sorts of old songs, probably sung in Music Halls and certainly down the pub if someone would play the tune on the piano, many of them dating back to the 1914-18 war: Little Brown Jug, It’s a long way to Tipperary, Pack up your troubles, the Hokey Cokey, My Old Man, Cockles and Mussels, When father papered the parlour….

She also sang “Maybe it’s because I’m a Londoner” and I sang along, because it has a nice tune.

“Oh no, poppet,” she said. “You can’t sing that.”

“Why not?” I squeaked, bottom lip starting to jut out.

“Because you aren’t a Londoner,” she said patiently. “You weren’t born in London.”

Well, she had it right. I was born Elsewhere, literally beyond the pale of our great metropolis.

“But I’ve been to London, Grandma.”

She wasn’t swayed. I was not a Londoner, and that was that.

She did still love me, but we were not the same. There was a barrier made of time and place and history.

Seeing that moment in the film (or “movie”, if you will), I felt it again, and was overcome that a writer who lived 250 years ago in a foreign land could describe my heartbreak. We shared a common humanity. I learned we are all the same in other ways, even those of us not born in London.

Have you had that kind of moment, in a story, that made it more real than real life?

To all of you, wherever you were born, we may still share our broken hearts.


Grandma’s Clock

Grandma's clock

The other day I decided I needed to start a project I had had in mind for a while: cataloguing the various “heirlooms” from my family. I suppose writing about de-cluttering the other day has been an additional kick up the backside. Today I made a small start, and the most important item among those photographed was, of course, Grandma’s clock.

What better way to kill two birds with one stone than to write it up and turn it into a riveting online read. I know you are all absolutely desperate to know more about it.

When I was little I loved to sit and watch Grandma comb her hair. When I studied German as a teenager I completely understood the Lorelei, who sat and combed her hair, luring sailors to their doom on the Rhine. I could identify with the men who became entranced; it was like that, watching Grandma. Her hair never went grey apart from a little stripe at the front. The rest was auburn, and fell to her waist when she let it down from its cage of pins.

My grandmother lived with us, so she was very important to me. She read me stories and showed me how to make jam, and always loved my pictures, no matter how awful they were. Mostly I sat with her downstairs in the old battered leather armchair with the horsehair stuffing poking out of the seams, and we read books and drew pictures. Sometimes she got a little muddled and called me “Win”, thinking I was her dead daughter. In my thoughtless way I’d say “No Grandma, I’m not Winnie, she died!”. Way to go, EBL.

Less often I would go up to the bedroom and sit with her. Those occasions felt more special. Her bedroom was definitely hers alone, whereas downstairs everyone was in and out. She had all sorts of her treasures in there, and I liked to play with the jars on her dressing table, laying out the hairpins in patterns and sorting them into sizes. I was that kind of child. Her dressing table also boasted photos in sepia of more dead people, her brothers killed in the trenches of France, and her clock.

“I don’t wind up the chime,” she said a little sadly, “because it’s too noisy for other people.” She meant my parents. “It’s a lovely chime though.”

So of course I wanted to hear it, and so she wound it up just one turn and we listened to it ring. It was pretty and I wanted it to ring all the time, but she shook her head. It wasn’t like my grandmother to be quiet if she wanted something, so I suspect that the chimes also brought back memories she preferred to stifle. I was being allowed a rare glimpse, and I took the crumbs.

She told me about different clock chimes and sang them to me, and we went through “Oranges and Lemons”. She told me about old London churches too, being as she was a Londoner. Then she sang “Maybe it’s because I’m a Londoner” as well. I sang it too.

“You’re not a Londoner though,” she said. “You weren’t born in London.”

It was like that bit in Last of the Mohicans, where Chingachgook says he is the last of his people and Hawkeye’s heart breaks. Well, my heart didn’t quite break, but it hurt, even though she was quite right. I was born in the Royal County of Berkshire.

When Grandma died my parents couldn’t find the key for the clock. It must have been caught up with the things that were thrown away. I insisted on keeping the clock though. It was 35 years before I found someone willing to clean it up and get it going, and now it sits on our mantelpiece and chimes irritatingly over the top of the television, usually at that bit right at the end when there’s a cliffhanger for next week’s show.

The man who fixed it for us stripped it right down and built it up again. Grandma had told me that her clock was a wedding present. I wish I had asked from whom, because it turns out that the clock is older than I thought. Grandma was married in 1910 but the clock apparently dates back to 1860. I assume it was a hand-me-down but I can’t quite work out who would have had it originally. It’s not particularly valuable; these clocks were quite common I understand, and I have seen several similar ones, although nothing exactly like it. Her own parents were married in 1877, so it was unlikely to be theirs except as another hand-me-down. My grandfather was illegitimate. The previous generations married in the 1850s so a little too early. It’s the typical genealogical conundrum, with endless possibilities and no chance of an answer. Don’t try family tree unless you are comfortable with uncertainty!

Anyway, that’s the tale of Grandma’s clock. It’s a big old alabaster Victorian monstrosity and I love it. When it chimes, she is with me still, combing her beautiful, long, auburn hair.

What objects hold memories for you?



For the love of grandparents

I have a scar on my left forearm where I burned myself on the bathroom hot tap when I was knee-high to a grasshopper, as Grandpa Swallow used to say.

Grandpa Swallow was a lovely grandpa, although of all the grandpas I had he was not one of mine. He was my uncle’s wife’s father, so technically not related at all.  This is him and my aunt, in 1963.

Aunty M and Grandpa Swallow

Grandpa Swallow taught me about growing tomatoes. He lived in Canada, with my aunt and uncle, and they had a huge garden backing onto the Canadian Pacific railway line. We visited them when I was two and again when I was seven. The second time was in the summer and tomatoes were growing, along with corn and squash and carrots and runner beans and all sorts of goodness. The thing I remember though is the smell of the tomatoes. There’s nothing quite like it. Every time we try and grow them in our garden, in the sullen English summer, even the slightest hint of that smell wafts me back to that Montreal sunshine.

He showed me how to pinch out the tips of the plants, how to tell when the toms were ready and let me pick them and eat them straight away, squirting juice every which way, tasting the sunshine on the warm flesh, feeling the fuzziness of the plants in my hands.

He was a lovely man who lived so far away I only met him twice. Still he made an impression on my little life.

He did not, however, give me any outward scars to remember him.

The scar on my forearm from the hot tap was caused by an act of love towards my grandmother. She used to have a nap after lunch and then have a wash to freshen up when she got up. Every day she followed her routine. One day I heard her getting out of bed, creaking and hobbling, and I decided to help. So I rushed into the bathroom to run the water into the sink for her wash.

This is what the sink looked like.

Young EBL cleaning teeth

I was quite small and the taps were quite hard to reach. The hot tap was the old fashioned kind that became very hot to the touch, and as I ran the water it burned my arm. I was like the frog who boils to death; I didn’t notice it getting hot at first until it became so bad that I yelled.

It seems that I discovered a cure for old age and rheumatoid arthritis that day. I should get a Nobel Prize, not a scar. Grandma absolutely galloped into the bathroom to rescue me and we cried together over my poor arm. I think I cried more for upsetting her really, once the shock wore off.

Every time I see the scar I remember her and I’m glad I tried to do a kind thing for her. It’s quite hard to see it now, after almost half a century, but it is still there.


I hope you all had somebody in your life you loved and who loved you too.



it seemed only right to write up a memory or two of Christmas as a child.

First thing about Christmas – I don’t think I ever believed in Father Christmas. My dad was the Rotary Club Father Christmas, and went around raising money to take the “old dears” to the seaside in the summer (I helped collect the money so I got to go too – and was spoiled rotten by them all!). When I was old enough I went round collecting door to door, as the Rotary Club float drove very slowly along the street playing carols, and Dad did a kind of non-stop commentary for the children.

“I can see you, peeping out the window! Get to sleep quickly so I can bring you presents. Happy Christmas!” etc.

After the collection we went back to the club house and counted the money – I usually had quite a good haul because people couldn’t say no to a kid at the door. I remember the smell of beer and cigarette smoke while we counted all the money up.

When we got home Dad would hang the Father Christmas costume over the boiler to dry out and air, ready for the next night. I wore it on Christmas Day to hand out all the presents from under the tree.

Dad also did a “Santa’s Grotto” in town, and one year Mum took me to see him, not realising I knew who it was. So I made sure I explained very clearly what I wanted, which was doll’s house “just like Sally’s”. I suppose doll’s houses were rather expensive, because Dad made one for me instead, and being an ungrateful little wretch I complained about it not being “like Sally’s”. Mum tried to say Santa didn’t know what hers was like, but I wasn’t having that! Once I got over the disappointment though I loved that doll’s house. Dad had fitted it with real carpet from samples from the carpet shop, and papered it with samples from the wallpaper books from his own shop.

We put up decorations on the Sunday before Christmas, and I spent ages making paper chains in advance. We used the same decorations year after year and they even had specific homes to hang in, with holes ready for the drawing pins.

On Christmas Day itself my aunt, uncle and cousin came over (we went to their place for New Year). My granddad and his family came to see us on Boxing Day. One of the funny things I remember is that Grandma used to have a drink of Egg Nog, and one year it made her a bit tipsy and she was taken to bed singing “Knees up Mother Brown” and “Little Brown Jug”!

One of the worst thing s that happened was when I was a teenager and Dad didn’t get a tree. He thught I was too old and he didn’t have to bother. I absolutely howled. The next year he got one again, thank goodness, and we always have one ourselves now. It’s the smell that does it for me – smells stimulate memories so strongly.

Really Christmas was very quiet for us, and as I was the only child it was quite dull in a lot of ways. I used to watch the television in the afternoon while everyone slept off dinner! I don’t want it to sound terrible though – it was a happy time, just quiet. I like my Christmases as we have them now, with a big family and lots of noise and talk and games.

However you like yours, I hope you have a good one.

Toy Box Tales

I’m sure pretty well every family has stories like this (well, perhaps not like this, but you know what I mean); stories which are repeated endlessly at every opportunity, especially when new people enter the family circle, teenage boy- or girl-friends, new neighbours, and so on. Over a cup of tea or a glass of wine, we tell the story, accompanied by grimaces, giggles and people finishing each other’s sentences.

This is one of my family’s such stories. This is the tale of “The Day Grandma fell in the Toy Box”.

The scene is set quite early in my childhood, when I was probably about three or so. My mother used to get a large cardboard box from the corner shop, and use it to keep my toys tidy. The box was kept in the back room of the house, known as “Grandma’s Room” because that is where Grandma sat in her old leather armchair, fairly immobilised by rheumatoid arthritis, and so always available to read a story or play a game.

One morning while I was in the front room of the house, probably playing with my breakfast, I heard Grandma calling for help. My parents were upstairs, making beds and talking quietly. They certainly couldn’t hear Grandma from where they were. I ran through into Grandma’s room to find her inexplicably sitting in my toy box, folded neatly at the waist, with her feet dangling in the air. I thought this was rather odd; she was struggling to get out without success.

Grandma had some heavy, full length curtains over the window and French doors in her room. The French doors opened out into the garden, which meant they were rather draughty in winter because they weren’t fully sealed. My toy box sat in front of the French windows, and Grandma had tripped and fallen into it when drawing back the curtains. Now she was stuck, and laughing at her predicament. I seem to remember my main concern was for my teddies, Big Ted and Little Ted, who were in the box underneath my grandmother.

I tried to pull her out but was completely unable to move her; in fact I seemed to make it worse, no doubt making her aching joints twinge with pain as I tugged her arms. Anyway, she told me to go and get my parents. Off I went to the foot of the stairs and called out.

“What is it?” asked my mother.

“Grandma’s in my toy box,” I said, accurately, but probably not very convinvingly.

“Don’t be silly!” my mother retorted.

Well, that was that. I went back to tell Grandma that for some reason my parents didn’t believe me. She just laughed again and said we had better wait.

A few minutes later my parents came back down to find Grandma was, indeed, as I had told them, in the toy box. All the grown-ups were laughing at this point, and they hauled her out and sat her down with a cup of tea. My dad said they would believe me next time! Grandma didn’t suffer any ill effects, although I am sure she was a bit sore from it. I am pleased to report Big and Little Teds were both safe and sound as well.

I like to remember that story, because although it sounds banal to tell it in this medium (you can’t do the voices properly like this), what I do remember is how amused everyone was. My poor Grandma must have been really very uncomfortable, but she was able to laugh at herself and the situation – while I, as an indignant three year old, was quite annoyed until I learned from her that actually it was nothing to get upset about.

I suppose the sub-title of the tale is “The day I discovered how stupid adults are”.