‘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.

‘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.

‘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!

ictori