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'.

‘Heidi to Heidegger’, p. 10

‘No one forgets a good teacher’, and I shall never forget Wendy Dawson, and her husband, Peter.

She had cleverly   recognised that here  was an ill-fed,motherless, neglected child, who had some potential academically, but needed to be helped . So, heroically, once a week, after lessons, she would drive me to her pristine, cosy bungalow in Billericay to tutor me .She must have felt great pity for this precocious waif of a child to do so, for this weekly outing became  very heaven for me.

Firstly, she’d feed me. Properly. Salads. With every conceivable fresh vegetable, garnished with peanuts. I’d never eaten these before, and I loved them. Secondly, we’d all sit round the dining room table en famille, with a fresh linen tablecloth to dine on, and  Peter would talk to me – kindly and solicitously.  Their dining room looked out on to a pretty, neat, lawned  garden, lovingly tended with beautiful flowers. To my young eyes, this was Paradise. They were a loving, attentive couple, and  the house was a  tranquil, peaceful and calm place. So different from the murderous , poisonous atmosphere at ‘the cottage’. I am sure I must have shocked them with my  innocent chatter about my complicated ‘home life’. I know I did.

After our meal, Wendy would sit me in her quiet lounge, at a dear, little, green baize-covered table, and I’d do seemingly hours of maths, English and general intelligence tests. I worked as hard as I could to stay in this safe, sane place for as long as possible, so as not to be taken ‘home’.

Her generosity and kindness to me paid off. I was one of only two girls in her class  who made it to Brentwood County High School for Girls.  I’d passed the 11+ exam, thanks to her.  My school friend, Gail Bracken, and I were leaving to join our new school. However, Gail was to be a ‘day’ girl, whereas I would be a ‘boarder’ at High House, a small boarding section for about 50 girls attached to the main school.  I was saved at last.

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‘Heidi to Heidegger’ p. 9

Wendy Dawson, my first teacher at Ramsden Crays Primary School, was an anxious, plump, childless, married woman in her mid-thirties, often exasperated by her twenty-or- so pupils, and charged with the ordeal of trying to get some of us through the 11+ exam. Although she was often ill-tempered and strict, she had a powerfully suppressed maternal instinct, which benefited  some of us with  her occasional ‘Mumsy’ kindness.

This was something new to me. Up until now, my experience of women was that they were at worst  out-of-control, cold-hearted sociopaths, or, at best, kindly German-speaking  grandmas.  She was a new breed of female ; and I watched her warily.  I’d recently seen the 1953 film of J.M.Barrie’s ‘Peter Pan’; and thought she resembled Wendy’s lovely  mother , Mrs Darling.  All warm  pastel cashmeres and fresh, cotton clothing,

I wonder what she made of me: a feral, unkempt, unwashed, uncombed child . I saw that she winced slightly when she came near me,with distaste.  But then, all of us country children were poor and a little wild.

She began well. In our first lesson she  produced John Masefield’s poem Sea Fever for us to read and commit to memory.I was completely entranced by this remarkable prosody: languid iambic pentametres; trochees;alliteration; dactyls.

I immediately wanted to try and write  poems – and, joy, this is what she asked us to do. My first attempt in class  was thus:

‘ My bed is an island/with waves rippling near/and a beach of soft sand/comes close to me here’. Closely followed by an illustrated rendition entitled ‘April’ :

‘April is the child of spring/she reigns for thirty days/brings daffodils on hillocks greens/and daisies on grass-edged  ways’.

Aged eight, I had become a poet.

I was hooked ( to quote the vernacular in this inelegant phrase).  I now added Sea Fever to my repertoire of learned poems, which included : The Solitary Reaper, To a Skylark, and  She Was a Phantom of Delight. 

Back at the cottage, I read my way through Palgrave’s Golden Treasury of English Verse. Entranced and mystified by it all at the same time.

And for light relief I would read ‘ The Wind in the Willows’, by Kenneth Grahame, over and over again, as  it mirrored exactly the world of moorhens, baby stoats, rabbits, rats, moles and field mice  that I inhabited.

‘Heidi to Heidegger’ p. 8

Books started to arrive at the cottage. The Aunt had drawn up a reading list, and  my father would go to Foyles’s Bookshop in Charing Cross Road to get them.  They all had a green Foyle’s sticker inside them, in the form of an open book.

Anne of Green Gables, by L.M. Montgomery, arrived first. I loved this story of the poor orphan, Anne Shirley,and I identified  entirely with her loneliness. I,too, had a cruel aunt  to deal with. At school, I also  had ‘crush’ on a ‘Gilbert Blythe’ boy, called, somewhat romantically, Keith Dowson, and I  was suffering the first  agonies of unrequited love, for his affections were all directed to a lovely girl named Carole Sparrowhawk.  Years later, I read the poetry of the doomed poet, Ernest ‘They are not long the days of wine and roses’ Dowson ( 1867-1900), and was reminded of him.

We were all country kids – running freely across the fields, watching moorhens hatch their young in ponds; while we climbed haystacks and collected and nurtured lost baby stoats, hedgehogs and fledgling birds.  We rode ponies, loved  farm kittens and had our companion dogs for company, Black Beauty, by Anna Sewell became a seminal, much-treasured book, and awakened in me a life-long feeling of compassion for animals.

Then there was Swallows and Amazons by Arthur Ransome – a thrillingly adventurous story, and finally, The Borrowers. by Mary Norton – a magical story about ‘little people’ living beneath the floorboards, with delightful illustrations by Diana Stanley. As the Aunt and I were often very poor, we would sometimes lift up some of the creaky, wooden floorboards in the cottage, and look for pennies that had fallen through. We once found enough coins to buy a Kit-Kat.  I suspect that a lot of the house-keeping money went on cigarettes for the Aunt, because food became erratic. Sometimes we had egg and chips; sometimes not. We survived on slices of bread and butter with  sprinkled sugar or sliced pears on top. I relied on school dinners and bottled milk to stay alive.

‘Heidi to Heidegger’ p. 7

‘Milestone Cottage’ was set high  up off the London Road between Wickford and Billericay, Near to a village called Ramsden Bellhouse, It was over  300 years’ old, painted black and white, with mullioned windows,and   sloping and creaking  floors and doors.  Straight out of ‘Central Casting’, as a hideaway for Dick Turpin.  It had a large acreage of garden, surrounded by elm  trees with rookeries, which looked out on to open fields beyond.  There was a small orchard, with  an empty stable and barn. Lilacs and roses climbed over the front door and walls.   The interior had an ancient, open fireplace with  flagstone floors, It was a thoroughly scary, creepy and spooky place; and I absolutely hated it.

To make matters worse, my father had  dumped me here with the moody, sulky Aunt Dorothy, who was to act as my ‘carer’. She was now a chain-smoking 21-yr-old , with no interest in me whatsoever.  I was enrolled at Ramsden Crays Primary School – about two miles away – and then –  more or less – left to survive.  My father provided  us with housekeeping money ( we always ran short),  and returned to live with his second wife, Sonia,  in Fitzjohn’s Avenue in Hampstead.  He would return to see us every six weeks or so, for the briefest of visits.  I missed him intensely, and wrote him desperately sad.little missives telling him so. Eventually, I  was given a golden cocker spaniel puppy, Win, for company. But even poor Win yearned for my father as much as I did. We suffered together.

The ‘aunt’, however, did provide books and poems. She had the habit of making me learn lines of Wordsworth by heart. It was one of the  many sadistic games she played with me. I can still quote The Solitary Reaper.

‘Behold her, single in the field,

Yon solitary Highland Lass!

Reaping and singing by herself:

Stop here, or gently pass!

Alone she cuts and binds the grain,

And sings a melancholy strain;

O listen! for the Vale profound

Is overflowing with the sound’.

However, when I stood up in front of her, as a timid, pale and frightened 8 yr-old, and repeated the words to her perfectly and without  mistake, I could barely understand their meaning.  What exactly was ‘the Vale profound’?And why was she so alone?

‘Heidi to Heiddegger’ p. 6

One day, a large, wooden box was delivered to our sixth floor flat at Northwood Hall, Hornsey Lane. It was a television set. On June 2nd, 1953, I had a day off school, and my father wasn’t at work, so we watched the coronation of Elizabeth the Second. I sat six inches away from the tiny, flickering black and white figures: men dressed as pages; an ornately-decorated coach. It was an intensely boring experience, made bearable by  servings of ice-cream and Cadbury’s orange sandwich biscuits, brought by my Dad. The spectacle, however, has remained in my mind every since. A glittering  fairlytale.

Now, when I came home from school, instead of looking out of the window at the magnificent views of North London, stretching out  towards Crystal Palace, and beyond, I had  Muffin the Mule. Andy Pandy, and Bill and Ben: the Flowerpot Men, and Sylvia Peters  for company, instead of the telephone operator.  But television didn’t capture my imagination at all,

By now, I had  ‘The Young Elizabethan’ magazines  to read. I loved them. Kaye Webb and her illustrator husband, the sublime Ronald Searle, had put together a  melange  of poems, short stories, quizzes, for youngsters of my age to read. We were introduced to the glorious character of Molesworth  in the stories written by Geoffrey Willans. I entered a short story competition run by Bourneville/Cadbury’s and won ( my father framed the congratulatory letter). I soon  became  immersed in the ‘ethos’ of the magazine; and even wore a ‘Y.E.’ badge.

But our time in London was coming to an end. Highgate, Archway and Crouch End were my father’s ‘manor’, where all his relatives lived and came from. My grandmother had studied at Hornsey Art school, my great-grandfather ( a registrar for British Rail) had lived in a house called ‘Fairfield’ in Fairfield Road, Crouch End, and my great-aunt Emily still lived in a large Victorian house, in  the Archway Road, filled from top to bottom with cats.  She had been a governess to the Woolworth family in Long Island, New Jersey in her youth; and had travelled across ‘the pond’ on a White Star Line ocean liner. She married an American, had a son, but  eventually returned to London. She was a cheerful and eccentric old lady, sprouting, long  grey-black  hairs on her chin, and passionate about her animals.

Soon, we going to replace our very urban  flat (  built in 1935 by Richard Costain and company, and designed by the architect George Edward Bright) for a cottage in the Essex countryside, at a village called Ramsden Bellhouse, on the London Road, between Wickford and Billericay.

The change would bring a rural paradise in to my life – and more books!

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‘Heidi to Heidegger ‘ pg. 5

We were in London long enough to visit the 1951 ‘Festival of Britain’, which was a brave attempt to lift the nation’s spirits, and to showcase new architecture, manufacturing and the Arts.

I have a photograph of my father and I  taken on the river walk on the South Bank, both of us smiling  in to the camera, wearing  beautiful clothes made in Germany.  Here we were pretending  almost to  participate  optimistically, in this staged, fabricated  post-war Zeitgeist. Willing it to be real, when we both knew our own  lives were utterly drab.  Everything here looked brand-spanking new, but  felt brittle and transient. Somehow it was  too soon to celebrate. People were still licking their war wounds. They were exhausted.

Symbols such as the ‘Skylon’, which was eventually dismantled, toppled in to the Thames, and sold for scrap metal,  the ‘Dome of Discovery’, and the sculpture of ‘The Islanders’ felt impermanent. The recent  2012 London Olympic Games were reminiscent of the ethos of ’51 – with its celebration of Britain ( and the redundancy of its Millennium Dome). Eerily  Deja-vu – ish for me.

Life felt hard.  I became a ‘latch-key’ kid, aged six, with my door key  on the end of a piece of itchy string, I would stand on tip-toes to unlock the door in to our cold, empty flat, nearly garotting myself . I’d then wait for  hours in the dark, after school, for my father to come home.  There was nothing to do, to eat, or to READ. I would talk to the operator on the black bakelite telephone for company;  and run the gauntlet of the ginger-haired delivery boy, who would scare me to death,by trapping me in the lifts and putting his hands inside my knickers. I was a very frightened child. Terrified of the nuns at school, and the horror that awaited me every afternoon after school. I stopped eating. I hid slices of toast round the flat in the  plants. I was sick at school, unable to eat the lunches of cold lamb, lumpy potatoes and sliced beetroot. My hair started to fall out.

‘Heidi to Heiddegger’ p. 4

Snow lay outside in deep drifts. There were four or five- foot high walls of the stuff, with paths built in between. I walked through these walls of ice across the garden.

Inside, there were large, wooden crates filled with belongings on the lovely,shiny parquet floors. The house, apart from the quiet ‘servants’, who came and went, was empty, and my father wept in the large, lonely darkened rooms. I placed my child’s arm on his shoulder to comfort him. I looked in to the empty space around us, thinking ‘What next?’. My mother had gone. I didn’t miss her. There was nothing to miss.

We were leaving Germany.

Dover, is the next place I remember. A cold, noisy, damp forbidding place. I thought ‘if this is England, I don’ like it’.

I was sitting in the back of my Dad’s apple-green Ford Prefect, clutching my Rupert bear, as Dad gingerly drove off the ferry boat on to English soil. I heard men shouting and loud bangs.  Harsh British voices.  Swearing. The German I had heard and spoken had been softer somehow. My first impression of ‘home’ was a bad one.

Then we were in London. In a sixth-floor flat in Hornsey Lane,in North London.And I was attending the local convent school – Birklands Junior School –  with its  unkind nuns.  I  burst in to tears when I first saw ‘times tables’ on the walls of the classroom. What were these?   And the only book was the ‘catechism’, and we few Protestant girls were excluded from a lot of the daily  services and prayers.