All posts by Amanda Victoria Sewell

'My Life in Books' is a general memoir of books that have shaped my life; and the writers and poets that I have met. The time frame covers the 72 years of my life, from 1945 until now. I also publish short stories and occasional poems on my blog. I am a published poet, with one slim volume entitled 'The Appropriate Country' (Waterloo Press). Hope you enjoy reading this mixture of memoir and creative writing! Thanks. This first tranche of my 'bibliomemoir' begins with 'From Heidi to Heidegger'.

‘From Heidi to Heidegger’ p.15

My first sight of the imposing Accrington redbrick Edwardian  ( Ingress Bell and Aston Webb) architecture  of the University of Birmingham  ( c.1900-09), crushed my spirits and filled me with dread. These were the domes of an industrial Xanadu with its ‘great hall for mechanical, civil and electrical engineering’, and  I had never felt more ‘out of place’.  My father’s bitterness that I had turned down  a place – on the building site of the equally off-putting very new University of Sussex – had confused me even more. There, at my interview, I had met and been intimidated by the sight of the uber- sophisticated  Jay ‘twins’ in their Paco Rabanne boots – and had fled.

Thankfully, ‘Freshers’ Week’ lessened my fears. The Philosophy Department had only a tiny group of students – and we huddled together. I warmed immediately to a girl called Pat Wardle from Newcastle-upon- Tyne, a stunning blonde, who announced that she had  come to Birmingham purely to find a husband. Her wishes were rewarded, when three years later, she graduated with a third class degree and a young trainee dentist called Mike Bellwood in tow. They married the following year in Durham cathedral.  At least Pat knew exactly what she wanted in life.

Another passionately ambitious Geordie – two years ahead of me –  was Andy Allan, who graduated with a First, and was to become a major  grandee of Central TV; and, who was later to jilt me six days before our intended wedding on August 31st, 1968.

But more of that later.

Here I was, a naive,18 yr-old pitchforked in to this dazzling new world, clutching my copy of Gilbert Ryle’s Concept of Mind, pretending to like beer and deadly No.6 ‘gaspers’;doing grown-up things like joining Amnesty, CND, and the Debating Society,and feeling utterly lost in spite of the good friends and company around me.


‘From Heidi to Heidegger’ p.14

We girls were all sleep-walking our way into university. With a clutch of ‘A’ Level passes, and ‘S’ Level distinctions, we’d leapt the hurdles of the Cambridge Proficiency exam in English, won our County Major scholarships, and some had even  managed an ‘O’ Level in Latin during our two years in the Sixth Form. We had all passed the obligatory two foreign languages at ‘O’ Level as well.

We were poised to be part of a social experiment in education. This was the era of the Robbins report (1963). A ‘new mini- wave’ of 50,000 of us were  about to enter the popular Redbricks and the so-called ‘Plate Glass’ universities founded in the 60s: Sussex (1961) – still a building site –  Keele (1962); UEA (1963); York (1963) Newcastle (1963). During this period the number of universities had doubled from 20  to 43. We numbered only 0-5% of the population who were eligible for university entrance in those days.

We were poorly prepared. None of us were groomed for Oxbridge entrance. The UCCA forms had to be filled in. We were allowed to chose six universities – rating in preference from 1-6.

We pursued innocent pleasures in our ‘free’ time.. We danced to Bill Haley and the Comets’ ‘Rock Around the Clock’, Johnny Ray,Elvis Presley and The Everly Brothers.  We were on the cusp of Beatlemania ( I bought ‘Love Me Do’) by the Beatles – their first single  – in  1964. I still have it.

Fascinated  by British New Wave cinema I  read the books and saw the following films:’A Kind of Loving ‘, ‘The L-Shaped-Room’ (1962), ‘Saturday Night and Sunday Morning’, ‘A Taste of Honey’,’This Sporting Life’. Suddenly, Northern cities became sexy –  I went for interviews at Leeds and Birmingham ( not quite northern!) universities. E.P. Thompson’s ‘The Making of the English Working Class’ was also published in 1963. Class and social barriers were breaking down.

And then there was ‘Billy Liar’ and my  60’s  crush of the  actor Albert Finney, ,to engage my thoughts. I saw him on the stage in ‘Luther’,too,  stood outside the theatre and got his autograph, Wrote him a fan letter; received a reply, which I still have , dated 8th November 1960, and addressed from the Cambridge Theatre, Earlham Street/London W.1

‘Dear Amanda/ Thanks for your letter/It was smashing/ My hair is auburn and my eyes are blue-green/Hope you enjoy the shows/ Yours sincerely/ Albert Finney.

The theatre now became an enchantment. We ‘A’ Level English Literature girls travelled up to see the ‘revolutionary, 1962 Peter Brooks’  RSC production of King Lear with Paul Schofield as Lear and Alec McCowen as the Fool. Two mesmerising performances; burned into my memory for all time. Interestingly, in 2004 the Daily Telegraph published a survey in which RSC actors voted for the ‘greatest Shakespeare performance in history’ – and the winner was Paul Schofield as King Lear.

I did a little ‘Am/Dram’,too, when our school and the local boys’ schooll ( Sir Anthony Browne school, Brentwood) put on a joint production of ‘Romanoff and Juliet’ by Peter Ustinov. I somehow landed the part of Juliet, and got to ‘snog’ my first major heartthrob and ‘crush’ – Brendan Braine, who played Romanoff. For a boarder, starved of male company, this connection was  deeply appreciated. The first taste of a boy’s lips.

I even- very briefly- considered – then swiftly rejected  – the idea of going to drama school.

But we were not well-heeled young women, so theatre visits  to London were a rare treat. We were more preoccupied with which  subjects to read at university.  I longed to read English, but wasn’t encouraged to. Many – if not all of us- chose the wrong subjects – French or Geography,simply because we were ‘good’ at those subjects. ‘Sociology’ – because it was ‘trendy’, and lastly Philosophy, because as young people we were questioning the world around us. We were all confused and misguided – indeed not quided at all. So, when I received an acceptance from Birmingham University from their prestigious Philosophy Department I took it blindly, but not before my English teacher, Miss Vashon-Baker said to me:’Why on earth aren’t  you taking English, Amanda?’

‘Because you, Miss V-B, never told me to.

‘From Heidi to Heidegger’ p.13

There were many iconoclastic books published in 1963, many of which I read.

They ranged from On Aggression by Konrad Lorenz ( I still have the paperback) to  Why We Can’t Wait  by Martin Luther King, and Betty Friedan’s  The Feminine Mystique.  In fiction, there was  The Fire Next Time  by James Baldwin, The Girls of Slender Means, by Muriel Spark Dog Years  by Gunther Grass  City of Night  by John Rechy.  All these books ( and many others) still remain on my bookshelves.

Seminal books of that time ( that I didn’t read) were: The Feynman Lectures on Physics (Richard Feynman), The Making of the English Working Class by E.P. Thompson and  Intellectualism in American Life by Richard Hofstadter.

Shibboleths ( forgive the cliche) really were ‘breaking down’.  We had our own scandals : ‘The Profumo Affair’, which destablised an entire Government; and  in July 1963 – Kim Philby was named as ‘the third man’. This really  was a time of ‘tarts, toffs and traitors’. And the world, shaken to its foundations by the 1962 ‘Bay of Pigs’ – Cuban Missile Crisis, was still ‘in recovery’.

And as the poet, Philip Larkin, wrote in ‘Annus Mirabilis’:

‘Sexual intercourse began/in nineteen sixty-three/(which was rather late for me/Between the end of the’;Chatterley’ ban/And the Beatles first L.P.)

Meanwhile, I, and my small group of schoolfriends, were still clinging on to our virginity, avoiding having boyfriends, studying blindly. We were all  totally unsure about our future lives and what we were going to do. We were being given absolutely no advice on anything: careers, universities, work, marriage.

Some girls were lucky. They had ‘focussed’ parents to help them to make decisions.  We took comfort – and shared much laughter- at the craziness of being a bunch of ‘A’ stream girls – all bright, but hopelessly lost and faced with a dizzying range of future options, previously unknown to our mothers, most of whom had left school at fourteen.

The economy was ‘on the up’, and the 1964 Labour Government, under Harold Wilson, promised un-dreamed of FREE higher education. My friends and I had all campaigned for him.and cast our first votes for him.We’d won the higher education lottery.

Bizarrely, my father was a great friend of Cecil Harmsworth King ( the chairman of IPC ( Independent Publishing Corporation)  – the biggest publishing empire in the world at the time, and one of his newspapers, The Daily Mirror, was a hugely influential newspaper then. King was the ‘Rupert Murdoch’ of his day, wielding great power and influence. His machinations concerning Harold Wilson ( and others) filtered back to me. I took tea with him once, and his second wife, Dame Ruth Railton , founder of the National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain, at their astonishingly magnificent home at Hampton Court. I had never seen splendour like it.

We girls  were   walking in to the unknown, to the soundtrack of Dylan’s The Times they are a Changin’ and  Roy Orbison’s ‘In Dreams’.  With our heads full of possibilities and conflicting choices.

I’d go up to little ‘ad hoc’ poetry meetings in London, where poets like George Macbeth and Michael and Frances Horowitz held court. I was still writing and reading poetry – and has just discovered the work of Auden and MacNeice.

I was given a copy The Burning Perch (1963) the latest volume by Louis MacNeice on my eighteenth birthday – September 23 -1963 by my first ( platonic) boyfriend, Bob Bixby. I found the poems clever, but perplexing.

I still do.

‘ From Heidi to Heidegger’ p. 12

On the evening of Friday, November 22nd, 1963, I was hidden away in my bedroom, revising for my ‘A’ Levels, when my father called me  downstairs to watch the news on TV. There, transfixed, we watched the and white images of JFK’s assassination flickering across the screen from Dallas, Texas, even then relaying unknown portents of further horrors to come, after this  complete full-stop in the historical time-line.

Most people remember where they were at these  momentous  staging posts;when the banal, quotidian events of the day are ‘freeze-framed’ for ever, and, to my eighteen-year old mind, it felt  as if the whole year was on the cusp of huge changes. A tectonic shift had taken place, played against a back-drop of  other dramas; the Civil Rights Moment, Vietnam.  A moment, after which, we would never be the same. We would, to quote Bob Dylan hit of ’63, be forever ‘Blowin’ in the Wind’.

And on this same day, less known, and barely reported, two ‘towering giants’ of the literary world – C.S.Lewis and Aldous Huxley – also died.

‘Heidi to Heidegger’ p. 11

As a reading antidote to all the glorious  Shakespeare plays and classical English  poetry and novels that I ,and many of my friends loved, was our passion for all things  French – from popular music to film, books , philososphy, and Gitane cigarettes.  Our heroes, heroines and idols were: Camus,Sartre, Sagan, de Beauvoir and Godard. We plastered our notebooks with pictures of Jean-Paul Belmondo. We bought the songs  of Francoise Hardy and Jacques Brel.  We wanted to look and dress like  Jean Seberg, or Brigitte Bardot. We pouted; piled our hair high, or cut it gamine short. Wore black from head to toe; or pink gingham.

I read everything I could by Albert Camus ( translated in to English): ‘The Fall’. The Plague’,The Rebel’,’The Outsider’ and many  articles and plays. He’d won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1957; but died, aged only 46, in 1960. He was a kind of James Dean of the world of journalism and literature. A ‘rock God’ of the philosphy of Absurdism. For my school-leaving prize for ‘A’ Level work, I asked for  his  The Myth of Sisyphus,( published then by Hamish Hamilton).  I had developed the thrill that many bibliophiles have of become totally enthralled  with the work of one author. This continued later in life with my love for the works of Milan Kundera,  W.G. Sebald, J.M. Coetzee, Patrick Hamilton, George Orwell, Jean Rhys, John Fante and Geoff Dyer – to name only a few.

My friends and I became little beatniks. Total innocents moping round Soho in our black polo-necked jumpers, tight skirts, black stockings and flat pumps. A girlfriend and I studied ‘Life Drawing’ classes at the Sir John Cass School of Art on Saturday mornings,and then sat and drank ‘frothy’ coffees  out of glass cups at ‘The Two I’s  coffee bar at 59. Old Compton Street, or, less frequently  at Le Macabre in Meard Street, desperately trying to look intellectual, sophisticated and less virginal, in our pancake make-up and black eyeliner.

But we were still teenagers, who enjoyed Girl magazine, and, in my case, a delight in the poetry of John Betjeman.

And,the supreme irony was, that although we were fluent in the films of Godard e.g. ‘Au Bout de Souffle’, and understood the lyrics of songs  such as ‘Tous les garcons et les filles’ ( with our schoolgirl French), none of us had ever set foot in France, or were even  likely to, for years to come.

‘Heidi to Heidegger’. p. 10

In 1955, my ‘grammar’ school was staffed entirely by superannuated spinsters, who lived cosily together in twosomes, taught their subjects in a lacklustre way,and had virtually no interest whatsoever in their pupils.

The misses Arrowsmith, Vashon-Baker, Seymour (‘Legs’), Giller ( ‘the Killer’), and numerous others were all: unmarried, in their late 50s and 60s; Oxbridge-educated; way past retirement age,and bored to distraction. They seemed to regard us girls as, at worst ,’marriage fodder’, or at best ‘only fit for’ Redbrick universities, at that. Career advice was non-existent; and, to my knowledge, none of the girls ( and I managed to crawl my way up in to the ‘A’ stream) were put up for Oxbridge entrance. Latin wasn’t encouraged; although we were all required to pass two foreign languages in order to be eligible for university entrance

Luckily, the headmistress, also unmarried, was slightly younger and more enthusiastic and caring towards us Sixth Formers; but, in the end,  we were left to the mercy of the Curriculum to stimulate  any interest in us. Everything was badly taught. No encouragement was ever given.

Yet, I remember the epiphany of reading Keats for the first time in class; and looking round in wonder and amazement to see if anybody else was as thrilled as I was by  To Autumn, Ode on Melancholy, or  The Eve of St. Agnes. I wanted to jump out of my seat, and scream   with joy and astonishment at these glorious poems. But, as I looked around me, desperate for someone to acknowledge my sense of wonderment, I saw only bowed heads  reading silently.  Nobody engaged  my wide- eyed joy, and desire to shout :’This is incredible, amazing work’, out loud. I had never read anything as spectacular as this before.

By now, I was writing  poems daily, and bits of fiction; and I had a short story and a poem published in Sixth Form Opinion. This poem was then published in  a book called ‘Sprouts on Helicon’,  edited by Judith Earnshaw, and published by the far-sighted Andre Deutsch.  We poets were all sixth formers; and Deutsch signed us all up with proper contracts. We  were all  invited to an ‘At Home’ by the Directors of Andre Deutsch at their publishing house at 105, Great  Russell Street, W.C.1. It   was here that I met the redoubtable Diana Athill, now 97, with whom I have kept in touch over the years. She still addresses me, touchingly, as ‘Dear Sprout’ in any correspondence we have had.

Between us,we girls, lacking any kind of direction or inspiration, had to decide on which university subjects we should study.  Firstly, we had to pass a Proficiency in English test, as well as our ‘A’ and ‘S’ Levels. No support or direction was given to us at all regarding university selection.  We just had to read prospectuses and choose our subjects. For some strange reason English Literature, as a subject, was never discussed, though it was evident, in my case, that this was the obvious choice.