More on the BBC today about how we will end our links with Europe, it focused on the town I was born in, Sunderland. The majority of the industries that were there as I was growing up; shipbuilding, coal-mining, steel-making are long gone, the most profitable industry, the Nissan car factory employs thousands of skilled well-payed men. Most of the cars made are sold into the European Common Market, against that well established fact 60 % of the voters voted leave in the recent referendum. I am speechless. I do understand that for most people the past extends to last week or the week before, for me I don’t actually remember a hundred years but if you add my parents life-times to mine, you get to just over a hundred years. I was a school girl when the 2nd World War ended, I do remember overcrowding, limited food supplies and low wages. These serious problems were ameliorated by the Welfare State from 1948. The most important thing was for the most part we were living in peace with our near neighbours and the USA helped us to build towards a better future. I would like the next generation to live in peace and prosperity.
Of course we should have relationships with many countries around the world. The best legacy that we have inherited is the English language, this is now a language spoken and understood around the world, a lingua franca. The fact that this is the language used by most people in the USA gives it enormous power and influence. We need to treasure this great good luck and use English with skill and honesty.
I have just watched a fascinating programme about travelling by train in New England, trains I like, beautiful scenery I like, history where it happened I like. The one reservation I had was the narrator Michael Portillo, visions of his earlier career did not bode well. I have to admit I was wrong his approach to people is friendly and open. He gives brief explanations of how this building fits into the story of the USA he picks out the important points. I am not sure who had the vision of doing this series of programmes in this way including; plays, authors, historians and political changes. Rhode Island was the first independent European settlement in the seventeenth century. To this day it maintains an independent outlook.
Little has been said about the previous inhabitants, the people we call the Native Indians. They were absolutely essential in guiding the new comers how to survive the extremely cold winters, without their help the early English settlers could have died out completely.
The filming of the land and the coastline is superb, the shots from the air show a beautiful land of lakes, rivers, woods and hills. I wish this kind of filming had been possible in school geography lessons, the beauty and variety of the world, words alone could not have the powerful impact of these moving pictures. The words and pictures together have a powerful impact. This series is something I will watch again on the i-player.
What would life be without books? I hope they will always be in my home, in my heart and in my head . The home I grew up in contained very few books, I was well fed, warm and safe, I had a bed to sleep in and a toilet at the bottom of the yard. I was unaware that many children did not have these basic amenities. My own father who grew up in the 1930s did not have his own room to sleep in. He slept in the kitchen/living room on a settee which was folded up during the day, the blankets and pillows were placed on top of it. There was a coal fire with a cooker at one side. A table had pride of place in the centre of the room, all the family washed on this table, there was no bathroom in the house. Food was prepared and cooked and served in this one room. Personal possessions were extremely few, clothing was very limited, a winter coat, hat and shoes were available to his parents and to his two sisters and himself.
These days I have time on my hands, my work schedule is my own and is principally concerned with domestic matters, cleaning, cooking, those daily preoccupations. On the plus side I do have time to read, at present I have two favourite authors, both American, although they have moved between England and America on a frequent basis. The writers are, Adam Gopnik and Bill Bryson, both have such wizardry with words I feel captivated and utterly delighted. Adam Gopnik enfolds me in his life, although I have never been to New York, I have never met face to face the man who conjures his experience in magical words. I have been young and in love.
I have always found words magical, to paint in vivid colours a life which has sometimes seemed to be lived in black and white. The words in themselves are not exotic or strange, its the way the sentences and paragraphs are organised on the page, with these ordinary building blocks a world is created which invites me in and talks to me as a special friend. Adam Gopnik has been writing for the New Yorker since 1986, he has also written many books and won many prizes for his analysis of the lives we lead and how to understand ourselves with more delight. I have on my desk, ” At The Strangers’ Gate– Arrivals In New York”. Adam and his wife Martha arrive in New York as a newly married Canadian couple.
Gopnik has very recently published a piece in The New Yorker about Christmas. He dallies with the secular view, the Christian view, competing religious views and points out by the way that the best songs about Christmas were written by Jews, two of the greatest songwriters were; Irving Berlin who wrote ‘White Christmas’ and Cole Porter whose wonderful song, ‘Anything Goes’. Their wonderful songs continue to bring joy and delight via ‘You Tube’, and all those lucky enough to possess DVDs and records featuring their beautiful music.
Bill Bryson an American from Des Moines, Iowa, has written a book,’ Mother Tongue- The English Language’. He begins by telling us that 300 million people speak English. I find that comforting as it is the only language I speak and understand. Many years ago I was taught some French but all I have left now are crumbs. Bryson goes on to tell us that English is a great growth industry and much trade is done in English which neither of the parties speak to their own families. There are more Chinese people learning to speak English than there are in the USA. These facts are amazing. I am so lucky to have learnt English when I was toddling around and it all seemed so easy.
There is another great writer who writes on the development of the English language, in his work,’ The Adventure of English- The Biography of a Language’ , Melvyn Bragg focuses on the changes which have gone on for hundreds of years and still continue today. This book offers many delights, it offers the story of the displacement of the English language after the Norman Conquest from the Court, the Law and the Church, the language of power for three hundred years was French. The written language of the Law and the Church was Latin, the English language was relegated to the spoken language of the peasantry but it hung on. Such was the disdain of the religious authority that attempts to write the bible in English were punished with extreme cruelty. In support of the church there was a parliamentary ban on all bibles in English. In 1412 the Archbishop of Canterbury ordered all Wycliffe’s work to be burnt. His bible continued to be produced and circulated, even when it became a mortal crime.
In 1521 soon after Cardinal Wolsey caused a great book-burning outside St, Paul’s Cathedral another brave man William Tyndale challenged the might of the Roman Catholic Church by printing the bible in English. He wanted ordinary people to have direct access to God. Like Wycliffe, Tyndale was an Oxford classical scholar
“The fight for the English Bible was a battle for salvation through the scriptures.” P.107 ” The Adventure of English.”
TIME is not fixed, in spite of our clocks and watches, sometimes the hours and days rush by in a blur, one day its Bank Holiday Monday then in a flash the days get shorter and the nights longer and darker. December is a busy month for all Christians and three members of my family had birthdays in December, now there is just one. It is the time to think about those loved ones who are not here any more. It shocks me to think I’m the oldest member of my family but its true.
I’ve always wondered about the where and when of my life. My parents worked very hard to take care of us, there were few luxuries and holidays. I understood that sometimes mother was very tired; washing the only energy from the power of her arms; cooking from the raw ingredients, not simply opening a packet to pop in the micro-wave and sweeping up the coal dust and the ashes. A coal fire is very cosy, but it does involve a daily round of clearing up the mess. My life has been so much easier; the amazing invention of the washing machine plus the tumble dryer, the disappearance of coal fires and the blessing of central heating. Yes I confess the micro-wave has an honoured place in my kitchen and ready meals are not unknown. on the other hand providing for the next generation seems to involve a lot of money, university grants have disappeared and debt now looms large for young people.
I am reading, ‘ The Five Giants [New Edition]: A Biography of the Welfare State’ by Nicholas Timmins, published in 1995. The book is a very illuminating history of a period which covers most of my life time. It covers the difficult and long drawn out birth of the Welfare State, historians date the official life of the W.S. began in 1948, there was a tentative start on pensions and free education from the end of the nineteenth century but the Five Giants; Want, Ignorance, Idleness , Disease and Squalor were brought together by Sir William Beveridge in his report published in 1942.
The Welfare State has been present in my life since 1948 I was ten years old, to the present day, sometimes in the background and at others very much in the foreground. To me the political is very personal. I started school at the age of five and it was free, at the age of eleven I sat the 11+ and got a free place at grammar school. In my teens I had my appendix removed by the National Health Service. My father returned from his army service in a very poor state of health, for some months he was in hospital until he recovered sufficiently to be looked after at home. The doctor who treated him came from Jamaica. The family was supported by sickness benefit. Later he was able to return to work.
My brother and sisters received free education and free health care. At about the age of twelve it was discovered that I needed reading glasses, the examination and the glasses were free, the frames were round pink plastic. It was obvious that these were the free frames, the major point was I was now able to read the blackboard and write down my answers. For some years I took off my glasses before I left the classroom
Long ago when a small child I began to talk, the language I was speaking was English, my parents’ language was English, we lived in England. Everything was plain sailing, I enjoyed talking and listening, our main entertainment was listening to the radio, although its name at that time was the wireless, which was odd because the connection was a long wire which was plugged into the electrical system. My father liked to talk to me when he came home from work. When I was four years old father stopped coming home from work, he was called up to be a soldier. There was an awful emptiness in the house, my baby brother, my sister, my bereft mother and I missed him dreadfully. Sometimes two aunts, Josie and Vera came to keep us company. We all spoke English, it was the only language we knew. The day of the big adventure came, it was time for me to go to school. We all walked to school on the first day, I went into a very large room full of boys and girls and one big girl who was the teacher.
She asked me my name and put a mark beside it in the register. I sat down at a table and she gave me a piece of orange paper and some crayons and suggested I draw some shapes on the paper. My memory assures me I drew beautiful squares, circles and triangles. I don’t remember being taught to read, or write or count, in some magical way I learnt these new skills and they are still an endless source of delight and pleasure all these many years later. I do remember learning to play the triangle and carefully following those beautiful blue notes, sadly my musical talent came to an early end and I prefer to listen to CDs produced by very skilled musicians.
Books and toys were in very limited supply during those war-time years, the teacher read stories and nursery rhymes, we danced, we sang and we made our own music with drums, castanets and triangles. I found a best friend, a clever girl who lived in the street just across the back lane, Joyce was kind and jolly and happy to be my best’st friend. The worst thing that happened to me was mostly my own fault, I climbed on top of the iron railings in the yard, someone touched my feet and I fell and hit my head on the ground. I was taken home and put to bed. The next day I recovered and returned to school.The classroom was a sanctuary in 1943.
The next adventure was joining the free library, a note from the teacher was required stating that I would take care of any book I took home and I could in fact read. The Kayll Road library was within walking distance but it was on a very busy road tram cars and lorries went up and down, private cars were few in those days. My mother told me I must wait until my sister could go with me, as she was eighteen months younger than me I had to wait for some months before her teacher signed the required permission. At last the day came and we both got on the tram which carried us up the bank and stopped in front of the library door. We walked up the steps, there was a door to go in and another to come out. We gave the librarian our permission tickets and she gave us a small cardboard ticket and showed us the junior library room. All around the room were bookshelves full of hundreds of books and there were a couple of tables piled high with books. I was bewildered how to choose the right book. One of those early books was ‘ Milly, Molly, Mandy’ I think the rhyming words together with the pictures made it very appealing. Most books were not beautifully illustrated picture books of the type that many years later I was able to buy for my son. Some books had a number of pictures in but the story was told in the text. I have no memory of the first book I took home, I simply understood that hundreds of books were available and in time I could read every single one of them. I suppose a very similar feeling to a child of today receiving their first mobile phone, suddenly the whole world seems within reach. Myself I don’t use a mobile phone, technology a step too far, but I do have bookcases at home with books tumbling out of them.
My present passion is a more detached look at the many and varied ways the English language can be used, I’m reading, ” Mother Tongue-The English Language,” by Bill Bryson. Its witty, easy to read and full of anecdotes. Bryson is an American who lives in North Yorkshire, almost a next door neighbour, he informs me that 300 million people speak English. I am just so lucky because its the only language I speak and read, I learnt a little French and Latin at school, only scraps of words remain, “bonjour madame, merci beaucoup, je suis une vieille femme, au revoir”. Latin I know had a huge influence on the English language, the Latin for free is libre, so our word library is a derivation of this word, books can be read for free.
The digital age also means that we can hear other people speaking their own words, we can tune in to people all over the world, we can connect. Books and newspapers are still very important but we can find our own information. The views of a media baron like Rupert Murdoch are not the full story, we can find the rest of the story, the true account. We still must ask ourselves is this fake news or is it an honest, true account of the world in which we live.