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'.

‘Postcards from Les Murray’.

I was very sad to read of the recent  death of Australia’s most prolific poet and stunning wordsmith – Les Murray – on April 29th 2019. But, also, gladdened to see that he had lived a long life until the age of eighty.  This,  in spite of years of depression, struggle,  ill-health and melancholia.  I found this to be profoundly inspiring.

And I also recalled the kindness and encouragement   that he showed to me, and the brief and friendly correspondence that we exchanged, and our subsequent meeting.

It was in 2000 that I sent some poems to the magazine Quadrant, where Les was the Literary Editor. I had written a poem called ‘ Chekhov Visits Bagara’  and, to my astonishment and delight, Les liked it and accepted it for publication.  Even better, he took two more poems: ‘ Marine Parade’ , and ‘End of the Road’.  He wrote me a note, which said: ‘Good on you, as we say … and best wishes – Les Murray’.

I also received a cheque for $120 Australian dollars!

It was around this time that another great literary editor – Alan Ross of  London Magazine  – was also  taking a few of my poems ( five in all); and it was, at last, for me, a joy to experience a little recognition and response. I had by now a healthy collection of rejection slips from all manner of little poetry magazines. To experience  two editors who returned work promptly and added useful comments  was astonishing and a joy.

All in all, I was to receive five postcards from Les in the coming  years – the first dated 29/9/99, when he wrote to say he’d taken my ‘Chekhov’ poem, and did I have any more ‘of that quality’. This first postcard was of South Head, Watson’s Bay in Sydney. Such an astonishing coincidence, because Watson’s Bay was where my late father had lived with his third wife for many years.

The second postcard was dated 9/5/01, when I told him that my little book of poems was due out soon, and that I had asked if I might quote him on the rear jacket cover. He then said he’d ‘be interested to see how you’ve been doing’.  All his postcards bore the same address: Cecil’s Lane, Bunyah, NSW 2429.

 

 

 

 

 

 

‘In Praise of Alan Ross’, p.2

From 1961 until his death on February 14th 2001, Alan was the to remain the exemplary editor of  London Magazine.

During those years, when I was busy trying to write poetry, and sending off submissions to various editors of poetry magazines, I would long to be able to write something that Ross might accept.  It was a longed-for but unimaginable dream.

  • But I slowly had the odd poem accepted by Derwent May at The Listener, (1969), and by Michael Ivens for Twentieth Century;  Graham Ackroyd for Nineties Poetry  and Les Murray for Quadrant along with countless rejection slips ! Most editors kept submissions for quite a considerable time, too. I once sent a poem to the New Statesman, and Anthony Thwaite returned it and said ‘sorry that I’ve kept it so long’.

Over the years, I would send poems to Ross, and, astonishingly, he would send them back ‘by return of post’.  This was  the pre-digital age – before ‘Word’ and ‘Docx’.; and he was probably the only editor who did this!  He would also enclose a colourful ‘post-it’ note with a very courteous and useful comment, such as:

‘Not quite for us now, but very nice to read. Such a recapturing of pleasure and enthusiasm’  AR.

After rejections from Poetry London, Poetry Review and RialtoI gave up sending my poems to magazines.

However, after a trip to Barrow, in Alaska, in 1998, I came back with renewed inspiration, and some new poems.

I found the courage to submit once again to Alan Ross.

To my delight, they appealed to him, and he very kindly made some excellent editorial suggestions.  The multi- coloured post-it notes contained useful suggestions and encouragement this time.

End of the Road’  the best but weakens in line 4. Trans-coastal better than bi – try and make it perfect’  AR

I tried for perfection, and he wrote back:

‘Nearly a v.effective poem’.

Almost  there.

‘We’ll take  End, and if you can improve the last line of Arctic –  a bit awkward, I think. Your poems are vivid and real, but I think tend to the jerky and elliptical. Thanks for sub.’ AR

Finally, the deal was closed.  Alan took 5 poems. And I received this letter from him.

‘Dear Amanda

‘Arctic’  reads well now. Did you go, or is it imaginary?  A lifetime ago I was in the Arctic in a minesweeper called ‘Harrier’ ( see overleaf) . Someone sent me the photocopy last week.

Can you send me a few lines about the past and present?

AR.

And, a day before my 51st birthday – 22/9/01, he wrote:

‘Thanks for the poems. We’ll try and use them all together’.

They were published in the last two editions before Alan died.  Feb/March and April/May 2001.

I think that the cheque Alan sent me must’ve sadly been one of the last that he wrote.

After Alan’s death I sent a copy of my volume of poems ‘The Appropriate Country’ to Alan’s partner, Jane Nye.  She sent me a lovely letter, and told me that Alan had really liked my poem ‘End of the Road’, and had given it to her to read.   She also mentioned Alan’s love of Sussex ( where I have lived for 40- odd years), Alan’s love of cricket at Eastbourne, and walks around Alfriston, Cuckmere  and Clayton, and his schooldays at Ardingly.

Jane also invited me to Alan’s Memorial Service at St Paul’s, Covent Garden at 11 am on

Tuesday 30th October 2001, which I attended.

It was a poignant and stylish event, with Harold Pinter, Charles Osborne and William Boyd, among others, all contributing  eulogies to Alan’s life and career.

I am so glad that I persisted in sending poems to Alan. He was a true mentor – and just the kind of engaged editor all poets dream of encountering.  Over the thirty or so years that I submitted MSS, he always responded immediately and with great gusto.

I came across a ‘with compliments’ slip that he sent me c. 1985 recently, and it read as follows:

‘I thought these very promising, the last one specially – but a bit Eliotish and literary, and I think  they need compressing more. But please send again’  AR.

I’m so glad that  I did.

 

 

 

 

‘In Praise of Alan Ross’p.1

In 1965, when I was twenty, I bought a book of poetry called ‘North from Sicily”:

Poems in Italy (1961-64), by Alan Ross.  I was attracted to the book by its rustic- looking cover ; and had never heard of the author before, although I later discovered that he had become the editor of  London Magazine  in 1961.

In the Acknowledgements page, I saw that some of these poems had appeared in  Encounter, The  New Statesman, Spectator, Twentieth Century and  London Magazine.The poems had a punchy, fresh thoroughly contemporary feel. I had never read anything quite like them before : they felt risky and  risque.  I was a naive, under-travelled girl –  usual for those times – and these poems delivered Mediterranean warmth and sensuality into my life.

The closest I had come to  experiencing the flavours, colour and vibrancy of this world  before was by reading  Elizabeth David’s  French Country Cooking from  cover to cover!

I’d also spent a week in the Costa del Sol, courtesy of Freddie Laker airlines. But Italy sounded gloriously louche and exotic in these lines from Beach Routines:

         ‘From rocks they dive like advertisements/ Or gods, and surfacing, shake oiled heads

The colour of olives, and the sea like grapes’.

Now, when I read these poems, from the perspective of having visited and even worked, briefly, in parts of Italy, I understand and savour these poems better.  As, in these lines from Symptoms of Withdrawal :

Passegiata, and hot Romans hurrying to pasta,/ Piazza di Spagna littered with tourists’.

The mundane mixed in with beauty and romance.

 

 

 

 

Continue reading ‘In Praise of Alan Ross’p.1

‘A Broken Wing’ p.5

Our days in Germany were coming to an end. I had loved our final Christmas . I never remembered another Christmas throughout my entire childhood  after that – or birthday for that matter.

No present. No special  food. No celebrations.  Nothing.

But for my sixth birthday I had been given a book ( by D, of all people) called Now We Are Six’ by A.A.Milne.  I read it from cover to cover, and after a week, I could recite every poem in it by heart.

My father and I were now alone in the house. A few  crates of belongings were stacked on the parquet flooring.  My father sat on one of them, and wept.  I remember hesitantly putting my little hand on his shoulder to comfort him.

Memories of the first six years of my life flashed before me:  summers by the Baltic sea, and holidays in Kitzbuhel ( in Austria). Pretty hand-made silk dresses, with delicate smocking – that I loved  to wear.  My excitement – just before she left – when my mother took me to have my photograph taken in Hamburg.  My last outing with her. She was obviously planning to take the photos with her when she left, I now realise.  For once, she had been kind to me.  My hopes that she might love me a little had been raised.

I remember, too, listening to ‘Dick Barton – special agent’  – on the radio; not really understanding a word, but being thrilled by the feeling of adventure. Also, our trips ( with coupons and ration books) to the Naafi – on Saturdays, and my enjoyment of tooth-rotting Mars bars and bottles of Coca-Cola.  Strangely enough, I have no memory of food from these days , apart from eating creamy birthday cake! Torte mit Zahne.

Dad and I clamboured into his Ford Prefect  and left.  It was night-time. It was going to be a very long journey back to the UK – and we arrived, finally, at Dover, after the Channel crossing.

I don’t remember saying goodbye to anyone.

When we arrived -again at night – in Dover, I hated the harsh sounds of the dockers swearing and shouting. It was foggy and bitterly cold. If this was England, then it felt and looked  like a miserable place, and I already hated it.

 

‘A Broken Wing’ p.4

Before my mother bolted, she and several other Foreign Office wives had attempted to set up food kitchens for ‘the starving Germans’.  But to no avail.  Fraternisation with the enemy was strictly forbidden.   Instead, gifts of bottles of whisky, packets of cigarettes, stockings and chocolate from the NAAFI were given to the German staff, to be sold on the thriving black market in exchange for food and fuel.

Most of the time, Elsa and Willi lived out in their own house,and possibly only stayed to keep me company overnight sometimes.   They took me to their home, once or twice, and I remember that it was freezing cold and drab, with grubby, unpainted walls.

My memories of these early years are clear and sharp.  I could remember having my first photograph taken when I was only six months’ old.  I recall that my father was holding me awkwardly, in front of the camera  and that the hand-knitted woollen baby suit I was in was itchy and uncomfortable and tight around my crotch and legs.  I also remember being left in my high-sided cot for hours, and crying and hollering for attention that never came.  Miserable and lonely, I stood holding on to the bars, with a sodden and full nappy hanging down.  Somehow, I managed to wriggle out of the nappy, which was a relief.  I was only about a year old.  Just beginning to walk.

There were happy memories, too.  A huge cream cake was provided for my third birthday – with candles on it. And at Christmas, Elsa and Cecilia gave me straw and carrots to  put into my shoes at night ‘for the reindeer’.

A huge pine tree was brought into the house.  I was shown it – bare and green. Then after a few hours, Elsa swept me up into her arms, opened up the double doors to the salon – and  there it was – fully dressed in tinsel and covered in tiny, white lit candles.  It glistened and glowed and I gasped with joy at its beauty.  Truly magical.

In our black and white tiled Art Deco kitchen, I watched Elsa cooking and cutting up vegetables.  It was a warm place, and she was always so loving and cheerful to be around. Willi brought apples in during the autumn, and we used to store them up in the attic.

Finally, a British family moved in to another large house in the opulent avenue that we lived in.  They were called Howarth, and their son, Peter, was a year older than me. At last I had a child to play with.  But our joyous games didn’t last long.  Peter was very enthusiastic to play ‘doctors and nurses’ with me, and would lock the door to their study, while we both took our pants off to ‘examine’ each other.  Mrs Howarth became enraged at this game, hammered on the locked door ( which Peter duly opened), to find us both half-naked.  She then asked me why I had taken my panties off, to which I answered that I was hot.

I was not allowed to play with Peter again.

We were both bereft, and would catch glimpses of each other from the backs of our respective family cars, when we were being driven to our schools and back.

There was certainly a very febrile atmosphere at home.  Maybe I was picking up on it. My father was like a stricken king, surrounded by two female acolytes – Sonia and D – and I presume he was sleeping with one or both of them.  The neighbours were probably totally shocked by this immoral and  irregular state of affairs.

D was a virginal  nineteen, ripe for seduction, and utterly besotted with my father. To her, and later, Sonia, I was very much ‘in the way’.

Once or twice, D would play this thoroughly frightening game with me. She would put me into a rough army blanket, and tie it up tightly.  Absolutely no air could get in. She would then spin me round and round – in the air and on the slippery floor, until I almost passed out . She would then  untie me, and I would fall out red-faced and gasping for air.

It was terrifying.  But what I most remember was the look of insane, evil  defiance and triumph in her face.  I am convinced that she thought of killing me.  I have had  lifelong attacks of claustrophobia ever since.

‘A Broken Wing’ p.3

Little did I know then, just how ‘mad’ our lives in Germany had become.

Through my child’s eyes, I saw a broken world around me: bomb sites in Hamburg , which I remember vividly; cowed people, ill-dressed and appearing silent and defeated. Obviously, I had no idea why.

But the drama in my own family was equally extreme and  intense. In the course of his work travelling across the country, my father had had a very serious car accident,   when his Ford had skidded off the autobahn near Bremen, and plummeted down a ravine.  He had been very seriously injured, and  was left in the freezing snow for hours before  he was found  and rescued by a concerned German family – named Barock.

His recovery was slow.  He had had a trepanning operation on his skull, and now suffered from severe headaches.  He was unable to work, and was granted compassionate ‘ leave of absence’ to get well again.  I recall him screaming in agony, and threatening to blow his brains with a gun that was in the house.  I saw him pick it up and lift it to his head.

No wonder my mother had finally fled.  The accident had left him with a complete personality change.  He had become disinhibited and would say and do outrageous things.

The final straw was when he went up to his commanding officer’s wife and told her that the hat she was wearing was ‘ridiculous’.

To complicate matters further – he had become emotionally attached to Sonia Barock  –  the young woman who had helped to save his life.  She saw marriage to my father as a way out of Germany. Her passport to freedom.  And, also, on the scene, was ‘D’.Obsessed with my father, and hovering in the background.

How and why had she turned up again.

He was eventually released from his employment in Germany.  It was the end of what could have become a very prestigious career in the Foreign Office.

The winters in Germany were severe then.  I remember the thick snow and icy paths. Snow that reached several feet deep – I would run through the tunnels dug by by Willi, the gardener that exposed the paths in the garden.

While the drama of my father’s agony continued, Elsa and Silly tried to make the coming Weihnachten as beautiful and magical and normal  for me, as they possibly could.

It would be my last Christmas in Germany.

 

‘A Broken Wing’ p.2

For the first six years of my life, from 1945- 51,  I lived in Germany.  And it was  our last home near the Wahner Heide airbase that I remember most.

My mother had long ago  left  me behind to return to her life in the UK; and my father was physically absent a lot of the time, because he was working across Germany for the Control Commission in the Transport division. I remember the day she left. I ran upstairs to her, begging her to read me a story, and her reply was:

‘Go away, and leave me alone’.

Well, I never missed this emotionally- absent woman.  I had loved her so much once, but that love was not returned.   Now there was nothing to miss.

I had only fleeting memories of her – at drunken parties and gatherings that my parents held. There she would be : chain-smoking her de Reske cigarettes, drinking and flirting.

I would sit on the stairs – in my pyjamas- watching the grown-ups at play.

Basically, my parents abandoned me to be  brought up by the  members of staff who lived and worked in our beautiful house, which had been seconded from a wealthy German industrialist and his family. All were  total strangers to me.

These kind Germans included Elsa ,our cook, and Willi ( her husband), the gardener. They were a warm-hearted, middle-aged couple, and Elsa took pity on this unloved, neglected and unwanted English kid – me- and lavished love, kisses and cuddles on me – continuously.  She called me her ‘kleine Mandylein’, and I loved her lots. To this day, I thank God for her kindness and warmth.

There was also a maid called Cecilia – a sixteen-year-old Polish girl  – working for us.  I nicknamed her ‘Silly’, which she didn’t mind at all.   How did she arrive here? What was her history? She  must’ve been a displaced person. A refugee, I suppose.  Anyway, she was a delight. Always happy and laughing, she was most affectionate to me. I adored her; and clung to her.  She was so poor. She had no stockings and wore old boots without laces, and a skimpy dress.  All the Germans around us had nothing. No food. No clothes. No belongings. They were desperate times.  But Cecilia and I  would play ‘hide and seek’ all over this  magnificent house, with its parquet flooring, ‘sweeping’ marble staircase, state-of-the art central heating, and large garden, full of tall cedars and red squirrels.

Every day I would return from the Foreign Office school I attended to the warm kitchen in the house to my little disparate  foreign ‘family’, and eat with them. The English teachers and other parents weren’t kind to me at all. But ‘back home’ I was loved and cherished.

To help them care for me were a number of ‘Gards’, as I called them :  local girls from the village who all seemed to be  named Hildegarde, Irmgard, Odgard – or so I thought.  They were a savage bunch and I got slapped a lot.  I suppose it must’ve been quite satisifying for them to wallop a defenceless English child . After all, we were conquerors living in their homeland now.

It was an  intensely surreal set-up, however,   and I was often lonely, troubled and vulnerable, with no one to protect me at all.  I remember I had an imaginary playmate called Paul, whom I spoke to a great deal – in English and German.

My father would turn up occasionally, but I didn’t like him one bit.  To me, he was a heavy,  over-emotional man, who believed that it was a good idea for me to share a bath with him.  I was deeply embarrassed by this and horrified at the sight of his willy floating in the water in front of me.

I didn’t know this, but my parents were now divorced, and, astonishingly, my father had obtained full custody of me.

It was into  this potent mix of madness that ‘D’ arrived. My tormentor-to-be.