The end of my academic career…

Yesterday, I did the final exam of my university career. I sat there in seat 048 writing a horrifically generic conclusion about why the French Revolution was totally important and stuff, and then I wrote the final sentence of my degree and ended it with an incredibly emphatic full stop. Then, I sat back and cracked my fingers in a smug manner, and thought, well that’s that phase of my life over and done with, and the crippling sense of anti-climax descended on me.

I’m not sure what to do with myself now. You’d think I’d be drunk right now, but I feel like I just can’t hack it anymore; all I want to do is crawl into bed with a cup of tea and watch the entire Blackadder box set (which is calling at me from my shelf this very moment).Yesterday I had a picnic in the park, followed by coffee and pastries, then The Apprentice and an early night. Today I spent all day reading in the park again, then went to the pub and left at half ten because it was too noisy and full of scary locals. I’m considering watching Doctor Who with a cup of tea instead. When I was in the park a guy came up to me with some flyers for a club night, but when I looked up at him he said, ‘Oh, sorry, I think you might be a bit too young to come,’ and walked off. Great. I’m twenty-one and I just finished my degree, but I look about twelve and I act like a seventy-year-old. Woohoo.

Term finishes on the 1st July and I’m starting a publishing internship on the 4th, and there are a lot of things I want to do before then. Things for me, not for my degree – things I’ve wanted to do for a long time. Some of those things are:

  • Start writing a serious novel. Or at least start planning it, and then do NaNoWriMo in November and rattle out a first draft then. I have an idea, I just need to turn it into something proper before I get bored of playing around with it in my head and relegate it to the dark place under the sofa with all the other plot bunnies of the past few years.
  • Read. I know I’ve just spent three years reading, but I want to read things that I want to read, and I want to read books without feeling like I need to underline key quotes and think of something clever to say about them in my next seminar. I’ve already almost finished rereading the His Dark Materials trilogy, which I loved when I was younger, so I’m having a nostalgic moment with them. I’ve also got A Suitable Boy and The Master and Margarita lined up on my shelf. A Suitable Boy is one of the longest novels in English so that one’s going to take me a bit longer than a weekend!
  • Start doing exercise again. I’ve been glued to my desk chair staring at my laptop for the past month. Now there is possibly a buttocks-shaped imprint in my chair, or a chair-shaped imprint in my buttocks. Today I tried to go for a run with the inevitable panting, wheezing, getting-overtaken-by-pensioners consequences. I also almost accidentally ran into the middle of a school sports day and joined in the egg-and-spoon race, where I probably would have been outrun by eight-year-olds too. Serious training is required… I may ease myself into it with country walks, as the countryside around here is beautiful.
  • Eat. I need to start running again to cancel out all the food I’m going to be eating. There are loads of independent restaurants and cafes here which we just don’t have at home in posh Surrey, probably because the rent is cheaper, and I want to try them all. There are also loads of lovely Warwickshire country pubs. Even if I’m not eating out, I have time to cook proper meals rather than bizarre whatever-is-in-the-cupboard-and-freezer creations (meatballs, pesto and frozen peas? Omelette on a bed of stir-fried vegetables? Yum…), and I want to bake lots too.
  • Write this blog, obviously. I ended up writing a lot of practise essays for my exams, which I was going to put up here in an attempt to make this ‘educational’ rather than me banging on pointlessly about my mundane life, but I can’t bear to look at them again. In fact, I may build a huge bonfire out of all my notes and essays on the weed-infested patio out back (it’s starting to look like something from Day of the Triffids out there, actually – no wonder the neighbours despise us and have just sold their house) and then dance around it chanting in a weirdly ecstatic post-exam ritual.
  • Spend an entire day watching movies in bed in my pajamas with a friend, only getting out of bed to answer the door to the takeaway. I know this seems counter-intuitive to my ‘make the most of my freedom!’ resolution, but I haven’t done anything as lazy and self-indulgent as this in years. I couldn’t have done it without being plagued by guilt. Now, I have no reason to feel guilty. I’m thinking of watching all three Lord of the Rings movies (special edition of course) as that’ll fill up at least ten hours.

That’s enough to be getting on with, isn’t it? I’ll make sure to take lots of photos of my adventures and put them up here. This summer is my final summer before I’m a grown-up in the big bad world of work, so I want it to be amazing, and I want to remember it. Hopefully, if I stick to my resolution of doing some writing, samples of that will be going up here too.

A Parisian Birthday

So, here begins my attempt to start this blog in earnest. I’ve decided that, although you probably care very little, I’d like to write a bit about myself and my day-to-day life here. Why? Because I like to look back and remember the things I’ve done myself, and typing it results in far less hand-cramp than writing in my diary (I have one of those too – I scrawl my worries in it before bed to help me sleep). Also, I think it’s more interesting to read something when you feel you know the writer. Of course, you can never really know me through a blog – but I can give you a horribly skewed and distorted impression of myself in which I am far more witty and interesting than I really am. You’ll have to make do with that.

I’m beginning with my twenty-first birthday, which was a week ago today. Yes, I have come of age. If I were Pip in Great Expectations I would now be in control of a vast sum of money. Sadly, I am not Pip from Great Expectations, and I don’t have any money because I am a student and I spend my pitiful allowance on unnecessary crap like pretty notebooks I never use, books I never have time to read and clothes I get bored of after a week. Nevertheless, I managed to scrape together enough money to celebrate my birthday in Paris this year, and it was wonderful. You should know, by the way, that I’m not really normal for a twenty-one-year-old. Usually this is because I act like a middle-aged housewife: I bake to get rid of stress, I get excited by novelty kitchen utensils, I like country walks, property shows and shopping in Waitrose, and my idea of a perfect evening in is lighting a scented candle, switching on Classic FM and reading a book. For my birthday, however, I went the other way and regressed to an eight-year-old. Instead of going to a club and getting merry like most twenty-one-year-olds… I went to DISNEYLAND!

Usually when you return somewhere you loved as a small child, you realise how unimpressive it actually is, and your memories are spoiled. Not so with Disneyland – I still had a great time. They create such a magical atmosphere there. I’m quite a cynical person, but even I was drawn in by the artificial fairytale world of happiness and sunshine, the cheery music being constantly pumped out of the sound system, the cartoon characters who bounced around signing autographs for hordes of starry-eyed children fuelled by a cocktail of e-numbers and sugar. It’s probably only fun for a day, though. I pity the poor people who have to take part in the Disney parade every day, blowing kisses, waving and bopping along to the tune of, “It’s just like we’re dreeeeeeeeaaaming!” on repeat when really they’re dying a bit inside. It’s a Small World was definitely a bit creepy, too. They should set a horror movie in there.

That was on Sunday. On Monday, we went into Paris and had a day of culture. The weather was beautiful: crisp if a little chilly, blindingly sunny, not a cloud in the sky. We got there around lunchtime, and sat on the grass in front of the Eiffel Tower to eat. We didn’t want to spend a lot of money, so we’d bought food from the supermarket near our hotel: fresh baguettes, cheese, strawberries and orange juice, simple but delicious. Sitting there eating our picnic, with the sun beating down on my face, I felt so happy and alive. I didn’t even think about the essays and revision for final-year exams that are now the dark, looming presence in my life (you should now realise why I am updating this blog – procrastination!). Apologies for bringing everything in my life back to books, but it reminded me of a passage in A.S. Byatt’s Possession, which I wrote an essay on last year. The main characters of the novel, Roland and Maud, are two stuffy academics who inhabit a dingy world of books and scholarship; they live for their research, not for themselves. As they begin to investigate a hidden love-affair between the two Victorian poets they are specialists in, their own love affair starts to flourish, and their lives unfold into colour. This awakening is best expressed when they go down to the coast to visit a spot where the lovers went together and have a picnic:

Something new, they had said. They had the perfect day for it. A day with the blue and good gold weather of anyone’s primitive childhood expectations, when the new, brief memory tells itself that this is what is, and therefore was, and therefore will be. A good day to see a new place.

They took a simple picnic. Fresh brown bread, white Wensleydale cheese, crimson radishes, yellow butter, scarlet tomatoes, round bright green Granny Smiths and a bottle of mineral water. They took no books.

Well, I had no Parisian love affair, but I felt the same sense of freedom. To everyone else, we were just sitting there having some lunch, but I like to read into things a bit more than is necessary.Now, I’m shut up in my room, in the gloom because my desk is nowhere near the window and it’s a grey, drizzly day, trying to write a depressing essay about literature of the Second World War, but looking back at these photos is giving me back a little bit of sunshine. I will be sad when I’ve graduated, but I can’t wait for the summer when I’ll be totally carefree. I can have a picnic in the sun every day (except that it’ll probably rain every day – this is England). Possession is a wonderful book, by the way. It’s a bit of a struggle to get through all the obtuse intellectual love-letters and made-up Victorian poetry, but once you have the novel really starts to come alive, just like the characters, and I was wowed by the final page.

We also went to the Louvre. It’s a huge museum, and there was no way we could have explored the whole place in the time we had, so we had to be selective. Like most of the other tourists there, we went for the Mona Lisa. I wasn’t that impressed, to be honest – my art-enthusiast friends tell me it’s a technically brilliant painting, but I don’t particularly notice things like that, and I didn’t understand why there was such a huge crowd around this one small painting when there was a huge, floor-to-ceiling painting on the opposite wall that most people were ignoring. It was quite stuffy in the Louvre, and we all began to feel sleepy, so we left and wandered around until we found a little cafe where we bought extortionately-priced espressos in tiny cups and revived ourselves with shots of unadulterated coffee.

Then, to Notre Dame, where we went into the cathedral and then pottered around Shakespeare and Company, an independent English-language bookstore. It’s been the gathering place of lots of famous writers – Ezra Pound, Ernest Hemingway, James Joyce and others according to Wikipedia – and there are beds upstairs so that young writers can live and work there, presumably while they ‘discover themselves’. It was quirky and interesting, but to be honest, everyone in there seemed to be either an obnoxious Beatnik-type in a beret or a bit of a toff. Personally, I prefer the second hand bookshops in London: they seem to be more about the books, and less about the pretentious literary culture surrounding it all. I certaintly feel more at home in London.

We had dinner in a lovely bistrot, then finished the day with an evening stroll up the Champs d’Elysses to the Arc de Triomphe. All the shops were lit up, and rising above it all was the Eiffel Tower, which is covered in lights so that it glitters in the darkness. It was all quite garish, really, but I’ve always thought that even the most urban cities look beautiful at night. This is when I’m walking around the safe areas, of course – my love of cities at night would probably change if I were to get mugged behind some dustbins in a shady alley somewhere.

The next day was my birthday, and I spent most of the day travelling, so I was pretty tired. When I got home, there was a big jam and buttercream cake, some cards and a little pile of presents waiting for me. I didn’t get a lot, but I loved all the things I did get: some clothes, a gold cameo ring my mum bought when she was a teenager, and two books. The first was a hefty baking book, and I’ve decided that I’m going to try and work my way through all of the (300+!) recipes, and document my success or failure here. The second was a guide to traditional shops and restaurants of London, which is going to see a lot of use when I live there next year (I’ll be studying for an MA). I’m also going to try and visit every place in the book and post my exploits here.

Surrounded by presents, cake and my family, I once again felt ridiculously happy. Now, though, it’s time for essay-writing and revision, and I just know I’m going to start feeling claustrophobic soon. I’ve decided that, as a means of revising, I’m going to write some (hopefully) entertaining mini essays on each of the novels/poems/plays I’m studying and put them up here, so that’s another thing you can look forward (or dread) to in the near future!

The Tempest – Cheek by Jowl

You can never be truly pretentious until you’ve watched a foreign language play/film and sat nodding profoundly throughout as if you have a clue what’s going on. That’s why I was quite excited to see Cheek by Jowl’s production of The Tempest in Russian (with subtitles, mind) last week.

When I was seventeen and was just starting out on my journey to pretentiousness, I went to see The Tempest with Patrick Stewart at the Novello, and thereafter decided that it was my favourite Shakespeare play. This was probably because I had yet to read or see Hamlet, or King Lear, or indeed almost all of Shakespeare’s other plays, but I think it was also because I loved the play’s elements of fantasy and magic. After all, I was going through my dreamy teenager phase, in which I attempted to escape the real world by writing cringe-inducing fantasy stories about ‘mages’ going on ‘quests’ to defeat the Evil Dark Lord and falling in love along the way. The production at the Novello (inexplicably set in the tundra) really played up the magic, and Ariel stole the show. I remember being both horrified and exhilarated when he burst out of a seal carcass with strings of gore caught between his claws. Lovely.

Anyway, I think one noteable aspect of Cheek by Jowl’s production was that it stripped the play of a lot of its fantastical elements. Obviously the magic is a vital plot point, but they didn’t make a big deal out of the island as a world of escapism: the set was utilitarian, Prospero didn’t march around in furs waving a big staff like Patrick Stuart did, Ariel was a soft-spoken guy in a simple black suit. Hearing the verse in Russian made it sound very prosaic, although still rhythmic and forceful. Towards the end of the play, Trinculo and Stephano whipped out their phones and started having a conversation (I can’t talk right now! – Why, are you in a theatre? Oh ho ho, meta-theatrics!) You would have thought I’d hate the production, and I was unsure at the beginning, but it grew on me and I actually really enjoyed it. I thought they did an especially good job considering the realisation I came to, which was that they didn’t have much to work with, because The Tempest really isn’t a great play.

Well, it’s still good, but definitely not one of Shakespeare’s best. The plot is very simplistic, and it all comes to a lovely unproblematic resolution, and few of the characters are actually likeable. I find Prospero and Miranda particularly dislikeable: he’s a control freak, she’s a bit of a wet blanket. Caliban’s sympathetic, but everyone always over-sentimentalises him and drools over his lovely little speech about music and dreams and not wanting to wake up. Naww. The play is often thought to be Shakespeare’s last solo effort, and I like to imagine that by this point he’d got tired of all that ambiguity and complexity in his later plays – too much intellectual strain – and so he sat down one day and decided, ‘Right, that’s it. I’m going to write a good, old-fashioned play. Problem, conflict, resolution, boom!’ And there’s nothing wrong with that, really, if we all have a lovely time watching it. Which I did.

So I’m just going to talk about a few of the things that stood out to me in this production. Firstly, I thought Miranda was great. As I said earlier, I think she’s pretty dull and pathetic as Shakespearean women go, so to make her interesting and not a complete pushover is a real achievement. People often think that, because she’s been confined on an island with no one but her father, a ‘monster’ (Caliban) and some invisible fairies for her whole life, she therefore has to be a complete sexual innocent. This Miranda was childish – at one point she took her top off and exposed her chest, which my friend thought wasn’t gratuitous because it showed her lack of self-consciousness over her body – but she was also very sexualised. Her first encounter with Ferdinand was charged with a carnal sexual desire; she giggled in an incongruously childlike way as he straddled her and started to undo his belt, and she was clearly quite willing to go along with it until Prospero pulled them apart. At the same time, I don’t think her sexuality was portrayed as animalistic, as if she were as ‘savage’ as Caliban – she was clearly emotionally intelligent too. Her character seemed to suggest to me that sexuality is a natural human quality.

At first, I thought Ariel was boring, but I think I was comparing him to the seal-carcass dwelling Ariel of the Patrick Stewart production, who made the stage freeze up with eerie blue light, mist and creepy howling wind every time he emerged in slow-motion from a random part of the set. When summoned by Prospero, this Ariel simply padded on barefoot with several replicas of himself, all in black suits: “All hail, great master,” in a calm and quiet voice. While the first Ariel threw himself into a cave with a whoop of joy and exploded when dismissed, this Ariel stood in desolate silence, looking out as if he had lost all sense of purpose. I think Ariel was purposefully understated; his character didn’t scream MAGICKKK!!! at me, and in fact I think he was humanised to an extent, but there was still something otherwordly about him that made him captivating. I particularly loved the use of live music, which was light and playful, whenever he performed his tricks.

Trinculo, as usual, was camp and effeminite. For once I’d like to see him portrayed as an oafish blockhead, but that role was given to Stephano. They were a good comic duo as always, but I didn’t see anything special in their performance. I wasn’t sure about the apparel scene, where Ariel tempts them away from their plan to murder Prospero by appearing ‘laden with glistening apparel‘: here it was figured as a plush shopping boutique, in which they had unlimited use of Prospero’s credit card. To me, it seemed like a bit of a gimmick done just for laughs, but I suppose there’s not much else you can do with those two. Another part I wasn’t sure about was the relationship between Caliban and Miranda, who were portrayed as best buddies. When Miranda was taken away by Ferdinand at the end, he had to drag her off kicking and screaming as she tried to get to Caliban, who wailed like a child whose favourite toy has just been taken away from him. They over-egged it a bit. I haven’t read the play in a while, but as I recall, near the beginning we learn he tried to rape her – shouldn’t that make their relationship a bit more ambiguous?

Overall, I really enjoyed the play, and I was surprised that having to constantly shift my attention between the subtitles and the actors didn’t detract from my experience of it. In fact, I’d often stop looking at the subtitles and just focus on the facial expressions and gestures of the actors – it was a very physical production, and often the way the characters touched or looked at one another was far more telling than the words on the screen. That goes to prove what my Shakespeare lecturers this year have been trying to show me: that Shakespeare wrote his plays not to lie static on a page, but to come to life on the stage.

Reddy and I

I’d look in the mirror and want to rake my own claws down my face. I was a monster, and if my face had to be scarred I would rather do it myself. I imagined a glorious sense of relief in those four clean wounds down each cheek, the torn flesh flowering into petals of blood – but I was too cowardly to do it. That’s what a beast is, really, a coward.

At night I saw myself as I truly was. I huddled over my pocket mirror and turned my face against the glare of the bedside lamp, my lip curling as I watched the light slice across my muzzle and set alight the hunger in my eyes. What was I hungry for? I’m still not sure. I didn’t want anyone’s blood. I just wanted to be – a person, I suppose.

At school I lurked in the shadows; out in the playground my friendlessness was too apparent. There were ways to make it less obvious. I’d sit in a toilet cubicle and stare at the door for as long as I thought plausible, then repeat the process fifteen minutes later. I’d hover in front of the vending machines, unable to make up my mind for ten minutes. I’d join the fifteen-minute canteen queue, and only realise when I reached the front that I had no money. With these combined methods, I could fill the minutes until the end of lunch. A calculated loneliness.

Lucy Reddy wasn’t really my friend, but I’d known her since pre-school, and she lived down my road. “You were little cubs together,” Mum said. We’d inevitably drifted apart. I was of a different species to Lucy. Anyone could see that she was beautiful. Her face was heart-shaped and her skin creamy, her lips a puckered red bow, her eyes large and blue, forever the angelic girl-child.

Lucy and her friends hung out in the toilets. When I went in, my skin crawled with the primal awareness that they knew why I was there.

“Back again? Got bladder problems or something?”

Lucy never joined in. She sat on the windowsill with her feet in the sink, flanked by two friends, and accepted a drag of a cigarette between her red lips. She stared at me with embarrassed familiarity, those lips curved into a faint smile. I think she was trying to say sorry. I forgave her.

One day one of her friends kicked in the cubicle door and they all saw me huddled on the toilet seat, desperately gnawing on my sandwich. They howled with laughter, and Lucy’s slim body trembled with the effort not to join in.

“She’s disgusting!”

I slammed the door and crouched down with my head in my hands and my claws dug into my scalp, nauseated by myself. Why, in that moment, had I imagined leaping at Lucy and tearing her to pieces? Why did my hands tremble with relish as I thought of her flesh underneath my fingernails?

That day I followed her home; her bright red coat made her easy to follow. Our parents had wanted us to walk home together, but Lucy took a different route to me – “I walk to my grandma’s after school now,” she explained. I’m not sure why I hunted her; all I knew was that I wanted to do something to her. I wanted to hurt her. Cowardly, I know, but that’s what a beast is.

Lucy never went to her grandma’s; I followed her all the way back to her house. I caught up with her at the top of her driveway, dug my fingers into her shoulder and spun her around.

“Why did you lie to me?” I hadn’t spoken in so long that my voice came out as a growl.

Her voice trembled: “I didn’t want to walk with you. You frighten me.”

“Why do you never stand up for me?”

“Why do you prowl around school all alone? Like… Like an animal or something. Stop acting so weird. Then we might like you.”

I stared at Lucy, her blood-red coat, her skin white as snow, her big, angelic eyes. Forever the pretty little girl-child. All my resistance broke down. “How? How can I be like you?”

Her bow lips curved into a smile. “Want to come in for some tea?”

I nodded – I’d never wanted anything more. My wolfish days are over: finally I’m to become human!

Lucy linked arms with me, and bared her teeth, and together we entered her lair.

Armistice Day

On Armistice Day this year I went with my parents to visit my mum’s cousin, Barry, and her uncle, Cyril, who served in the Merchant Navy during the Second World War. Twice a year we go to the dentist in Hayes, and we always combine our trip with a visit to Barry and Cyril – it was a coincidence that this time the trip fell on Armistice Day. I thought it was appropriate, and was glad I could commemorate the day by spending time with Uncle Cyril, whose wife Joan passed away in the summer and who I knew would look forward to having company.

We got to the house a few minutes before eleven o’ clock, when the two-minute silence is observed all over the country: the radio DJ was preparing us for the airwaves to fall silent. I thought that maybe we would stay in the car and observe the silence, but my parents got out and went around the back of the house, and so I had to follow. Barry let us in, and everything was as usual: the cats were running about, the kettle was boiling to make us tea, and Cyril was in his usual armchair, listening to Sing, Sing, Sing. He rose to greet us as we came in, shaking my dad’s hand, kissing me and my mum on the cheek, while Barry complained about the terrible weather. For some reason I half expected to be met by bowed heads and reverent silence, not jazz music and the whine of the kettle.  I wondered if they even knew what the date was.

We’d printed off some photos of the flowers at Joan’s funeral to give Barry and Cyril, and my mum remembered that we’d forgotten to bring them in, so I ran out through the rain to fetch them from the car. As I was clambering across the backseat I heard the mighty boom of a gun being fired, so loud that it seemed to shake the sky, and I actually jumped high enough to hit my head on the frame of the car door – for a split second I was frightened, then I realised that it must have just struck eleven. I ran back into the house with the photos in my hand to find Barry and my dad talking, as usual, about motorbikes, while Cyril hummed to the music with a faraway look on his face.

“Did you hear that bang?” I said.

“Ah, yes,” said my dad, “Armistice Day. It must be eleven o’ clock.”

“Oh!” said Cyril. “It’s that day today, is it?”

He wasn’t concerned at all, and conversation soon moved on to the new rescue kitten Barry had bought, who wouldn’t come near any of us. No one else seemed to find it strange that to Cyril, who had fought in the Second World War, Armistice Day, eleven o’ clock, the poppy on my jacket and the two-minute silence meant nothing. I can’t begin to imagine what the horror of war was like, but he was there, he has real memories of it. He was on a ship that was bombed and sunk by the Germans; he stood on the beach in France and watched everything he owned burn; several men, maybe some of them his friends, died that day. But when we commemorate the war, in November and throughout the year, we don’t just remember the men who gave and continue to give their lives; we remember the men who survived too, veterans like Cyril, who lived to enjoy the peace that they fought for.

In spite of this, it didn’t seem to occur to Cyril that that gun was being fired for him. He doesn’t see himself as a hero in any way. Most people who looked at him wouldn’t see a hero; they would see a distant, thoughtful ninety-year-old man in slippers and an old worn cardigan, a man who gets lonely since his wife of more than sixty years passed away, who listens to Glen Miller in the mornings to keep him company. “Yeah, Glen Miller, that reminds me of my good days,” he said with a smile, lost in remembrance, while Barry explained how he’d had to take the CD player back to Argos twice because the bloody thing wouldn’t work. But I don’t want to patronise Cyril, because he may be old now, but he still is a hero. Old age is something that will catch up with us all someday – and when we’re sitting alone in our living rooms in our slippers, sipping milky tea and longing for someone to ring on the doorbell, will we be able to say we’ve done anything as great and heroic as he has?

In the summer, a week before Joan died, I went to Hayes to interview her and Cyril; I’m doing a module in literature of the Second World War at university, and I had to put together a presentation to give to my seminar. It was then that Cyril gave me his most vivid memories of the war, including the day in 1940 when his ship, the HMS Orford, was bombed and sunk off the coast of Marseilles, where it was evacuating troops. If you ask him about the war this is always the first story he’ll tell, and he’ll tell it over and over, remembering the tiniest details where he forgets major details about other times in his life, and I don’t blame him. I was traumatised when the pipes in our student house got blocked and the kitchen flooded when I turned on the washing machine – what would being on a sinking ship do to me?

“1940. June 1, half past 2 in the afternoon, we were bombed that day,” he told me. “I was in my bunker down below deck, and I felt it shake, and smoke, the smell of powder from the bomb.” He showed me a picture of a ship just like the Orford, and pointed out the place where the bomb struck and the chimney collapsed forward onto the ship. “That’s where the bombs went – that fell forward on the bridge, you know, belching smoke and flames, and the old flag was flying from the stern mast, the old Red Duster. It was burnt right through… And it was just flopping around, as if to say, I’m still going, you know, sod the Jerries!”

A ship similar to the Orford

He described how he got to shore on the lifeboat and then stood with his comrades on the beach, watching the ship sink, while the German bombers still swooped overhead; at one point they came back to drop another bomb and he had to throw himself into a ditch, injuring his leg. He didn’t have a clue what to do next – everything he owned was on that ship. The seamen were put on the back of a train – “twenty-three of us with a bottle of water and a tin of corned beef” – and then a boat to Southampton, where they were given thirteen pounds each and told to “get on the best you can”. He was expected to make his own way home, and that was that. “I hadn’t washed, I hadn’t shaved, and I didn’t have anything,” he said. If anyone questioned his scruffy appearance, Cyril was to tell them he was a Distressed British Seaman, a DBS. But as he made his way back to Hayes on a series of trains and buses, with nothing but a bag of money, his trousers and singlet, and a pair of flip-flops a woman had given him on the beach in France, most people just looked at him as if he were mad. What did those three letters, DBS, mean to someone who’d never been at sea?

Eventually, with the help of a friendly police officer, Cyril made it back to Hayes. The man even escorted him to the front door of his brother John’s house. When John’s wife Winnie came around the corner and saw Cyril standing on her doorstep in his singlet, she fell into a dead faint.

Cyril also told me the story of how he met Joan, although he was confused about the exact details, something that frustrated him. Joan herself didn’t want to remember: “He gets annoyed, because he says things and I don’t remember them,” she said. “But I’m a one that looks ahead. Not backwards. Do you know what I mean? I don’t want to know what’s happened behind, it’s gone, you know. But Cyril, he’s like – well, it’s his memory now, I know – but he doesn’t want to look forward. I mean, he’s ninety!” Joan was always looking forward until the day she died, and I think that’s a good attitude to have in life. But I’m also glad that Cyril tried so hard to remember, because I think that’s important too. One of the saddest things about death is that our stories die with us, all those memories, those thoughts and feelings which we will never be able to fully communicate to anyone else. Cyril and Joan may not have thought that what they went through is worth telling – they may have thought, well, that’s just what happened to me, different things happen to other people, why should we waste each others’ time repeating what’s past? – but I disagree. That’s why I’m writing their stories down as best I can now.

It was 1943, and Cyril had returned from a journey to Canada and was home on leave. In one version of the story, he met Joan in the pub; in another he met her father in the pub, and went home with him to see Joan sitting at the bottom of the stairs. In the version he told me, he was bored one day and walking along the road with his friend. “I looked over at the gardens, and I see some bird washing her hair – it was right down her neck, that much!” he said, while Joan laughed and rolled her eyes. “I said, who’s that, Tom? He said, that’s so and so’s daughter. I said, cor, she ain’t bad, is she? He said, I’m gonna go have a drink, and I said, right, I’m gonna go and see her. And I crossed over the road and shouted out, I said, does your mum know you’re out? And I went in.” Three weeks later they were engaged to be married. “The next trip when I came back, I saved a few bob. We got married. I’ve been skint ever since!”

“You didn’t know each other for very long before you got married, then!” I said to them. I was surprised, because I don’t think I would even consider marrying someone unless I’d been dating him for at least a couple of years, but I also understood that that was how it was then: you had to be quick, because you never knew how much time you had. Especially if, like Cyril, your life was under constant threat. “Cyril was away at sea, and we were going to get married, and I got my wedding dress, and he came home and he had to go back again,” explained Joan. “So we got married quickly at the registry office. And my wedding dress was still up there [on the hanger]. Never wore it.” Of course, that didn’t matter to Joan, because she was in love. She didn’t need a big white wedding of the sort most girls these days fantasise about.

It wasn’t just Cyril whose life was in danger, though; Joan also experienced the terrible destruction of war first-hand when the EMI factory in Hayes where she worked was bombed on July 7th, 1944. Joan worked in a tiny ‘dust-free’ room, with duckboards and water on the floor, where she had to wear clogs and a white suit. “We used to assemble these little round glass things. We didn’t know what they were, because it was secret… But since then I’ve found out that it was the infra-red to go into the glasses for the pilots.” If the air raid sirens went off, the girls had to remove their suits before they could leave the room, which took some time. Joan remembers it was a Friday when the sirens went off. “This day we’d still got [the suits] on, it was emergency, and it was quite a way to go to the shelters from there. And we were walking out to go to the shelters, and this buzz bomb came, in EMI… and I saw it, it just dropped down, and it was about the length of this road away.” The bomb fell near to the entrance of a shelter; thirty-seven employees were killed and fifty-six injured. If Joan had made it to the shelter sooner – if she hadn’t had to take her suit off – she probably would have been added to that number.

One of the victims was a young girl who, like Joan, was engaged to be married. Soon after the bombing, someone approached Joan’s dad in the pub and offered him their condolences – they thought it was Joan who had died. “That’s how it was though, who had got killed,” said Joan, and Cyril added: “You never knew for sure.” Death had become a normality, always just around the corner. Whether you were a merchant seaman sailing in a tanker convoy, with submarines below you and torpedoes above you, watching the ship behind you go down and not being allowed to go back for survivors, or on the home front, listening to the wail of the air raid sirens, your life could be taken away from you at any moment. That made it all the more precious, I suppose.

Joan had plenty more stories to tell me about the war, but we didn’t have time for them all, and so she promised to phone me up later and tell me more – for example, how she and the neighbours used to have tea parties in the middle of the street, something that would never happen now, as the neighbours barely spoke to them. Sadly, she died a week later, so I never got to hear those stories. I’m just glad that, instead of dying on that day in 1944, she went on to live a full and happy life. As for Cyril, I wish I could disentangle the web of his memories and extract the stories from it, because he did so many things: he sailed to Australia and back eight times, travelled across America on a train to San Francisco, almost died from malaria in Sierra Leone, and he was in Canada when he heard that the war was over. But he’s too old to untangle these wonderful stories himself, and his memory fails him. There was one moment in our interview that really struck a chord with me, when Cyril was trying to remember the name of a tanker on which he was the leading hand. “It was called… I forget the name of the ship now.” There was a long silence, and then he said: “Maybe it’s just as well, really.”

Maybe his memories of the war are so indistinct because he would rather not remember them. But they’re always there, at the back of his mind, because who could forget a thing like that? All I see is an old man hunched over in an armchair with astounding dignity, whistling faintly to swing music, but inside that man is a world I cannot comprehend: a world of iron and steel, the roar of the sea and the roar of guns, explosions, smoke and fire, of cold and dark, uncertainty and fear, perhaps pain; but also a world of camaraderie, spirit and immense bravery, of whirlwind romances, of smoking and drinking on deck with his fellow sailors to cheer themselves, and most likely flirting with large numbers of women. Joan accepted that this was part of life at sea: “As I say, he was lucky, you know. I mean he was single and I think when they got into port, he had good times, you know… But no worries or anything.”

When we got back from the dentist we stayed for about half an hour, chatting about various things: the cats, hospital appointments, Wilkinson’s closing down, the motorbike dealers that had finally gone under, but not the war. Cyril said very little, but of course there was no way to tell what he was thinking about. We got up to leave and I kissed Cyril on the cheek; he grinned at me, and said, “Emma, you’ve become a very fine-looking young lady.” I saw a glimmer of the cheeky sailor in his eyes, and I saw him as the handsome man he used to be, the man who had won Joan’s heart. “See you soon,” I said, and I hope that I do – but of course, he’s ninety now, so who knows? I hope he’s not too lonely without Joan. And I hope that, if he read this, he would approve of it.

Cyril’s and Joan’s stories deserve to be remembered. They are just two of many wartime stories, some of which will be lost, some of which have already been lost forever, but all just as important as one another. As trite as it sounds, many trite things have become so because they are true: so long as we remember them, the heroes of these stories will never die.


I am using my first post to explain to my as yet non-existent readers what the purpose of this blog will be.

As a final year English Literature student at university, I’m at that scary stage in my life where I have no idea where I’m headed next. At the moment I’m torn between going down the academic route, and bumming around drinking coffee and writing essays for at least four more years until I have an impressive array of letters next to my name but at least a hundred grand in debt, or going out into the real world and getting a proper career, which may be soul-crushing but at least will allow me to live in a nice flat in London and go shopping a lot. Either way, I know that the only thing I really want to do is write. Whether I’m writing a novel, a short story, an essay, a blog post or even just a letter or email to someone, I adore writing and I can’t think of anything worse than if someone forbade me to write. It’s the only way I can see myself making a difference in the world.

In spite of this, my muse is a fickle creature. I want to write, but when I sit down to do it, I’m a bit tired or hungry, or I have a slight headache, or there is some work I really should be doing, or I wanted to watch that thing on BBC iPlayer. I end up writing far less than I should do considering I want to make a career out of it. So this blog is firstly a way or forcing myself to write. I’m going to pretend it’s an imaginary university assignment and that I have to update it hopefully at least once a week.

Secondly, I’m worried that if I don’t take the academic route – which I probably won’t, as the thought of having to give a lecture or lead a seminar nauseates me slightly – I will become a dead-eyed commuter, cut off from the world of literature I love so much. I wish university never had to end, but it does. That doesn’t mean I have to stop learning and educating myself, though; university provides a structure in which to do that, but if I have the initiative I can do that in my own time, too, without any pressure or deadlines. I therefore plan to write a little review or essay on every book I read as well as showcasing my writing.

I don’t want my ‘essays’ to be stuffy, boring and inaccessible though, like the articles you read in the TLS. Last year I bought a couple of issues of a quarterly called Slightly Foxed, which describes itself as ‘the real reader’s quarterly’. It contains lots of short articles about books, but they’re not necessarily written by academics – they’re by people of all ages who simply love books. These people write in a warm, personal way about books that have meaning for them, and it’s not always ‘high’ literature; sometimes it’s just books they read as a child. It’s all printed on creamy paper in a lovely little booklet with gorgeous illustrations. I’d really recommend it, although I couldn’t afford to keep up my subscription. Anyway, I want my blog to be a little bit like Slightly Foxed – readable and with a personal touch.

I’ll probably ending posting a little bit about my life as well, because if a blog is going to have a personal touch, you need to know who the person writing it is. My life tends to be quite inane and uneventful, though, so I won’t bore you with the details of what I had for dinner last night too much.

That’s all for now. I probably won’t be posting here for a while, and when third-year work gets too heavy I’ll most likely abandon it for a period, but I thought I’d write a little something while I’m still feeling inspired!