How to Plunder Your Memories to Write a Book

For some people, a life story emerges as an autobiography or memoir. My aim was more modest. I planned to use some of my oldest memories to write a novel set in Egypt. It was never intended to be all true. While a convent education taught me not to lie, I used to be pretty good at embroidery, if I say so myself.

To aid my recall of fading memories, there were all the old photos that my mother had left me. I therefore dived into the cupboard under the stairs for the afternoon, finally emerging not with leather photo albums from 1955 but a mountain of dust and a couple of old cat toys.

In my experience, recollections have a habit of surfacing on their own now and again, usually in the small hours. Experience also tells me that, if I don’t jot it down at the time, I won’t remember it in the morning, hence what I call my amnesia pad on the bedside table. It’s not that easy to find in the dark and I’m apt to send water glass flying as I scrabble about for paper and pencil. There! I need only scribble a couple of words to nudge me in the morning and I can go back to sleep.

When the alarm goes off a few hours later, I make out the words Magic Marker

Which make no sense. I don’t think we even had Magic Marker in Egypt back then. Over a strong coffee, I try to work it out. The two words I wrote evoke the heady smell of a pristine Magic Marker and the hot tears I cried when I accidentally hit my mummy on the forehead with it. We both thought I’d marked her indelibly. At the time, neither of us quite understood how skin works. I was seven years old. I don’t know what Mummy’s excuse was.

Neither of those reminiscences is quite what I’m after. I resort to Wikipedia as an aide mémoire but, although I learn the history of the Magic Marker and the reason it smelled as it did (early versions contained xylene and toluene), it doesn’t help. I may as well have scribbled wild goose chase on my amnesia pad.

When my own recall lets me down, I sometimes consult my beloved aunt with whom I have a close bond. She clearly recalls what happened years ago, even if her version of events often contradicts mine. “At Suez, your mother was desperate not to be evacuated,” she tells me. “And Papa pleaded with the authorities for her to be allowed to stay in Alex.”

Which is totally weird since I remember with crystal clarity that Mummy had packed our bags and we spent all day at the docks in Alexandria. While she begged to leave on the US Sixth Fleet, I clutched my teddy bear and kept whining to use the bathroom. My mother’s negotiations were partly successful. Our suitcases made the trip.

Timing goes AWOL too when delving into memories. “You never know your mother’s dog, did you? Boogie got run over before you were born.”

My aunt sounds very sure, but this time I can prove her wrong simply by rolling up my sleeve and displaying a scar that’s still there more than half a century later. I had got up too quickly from my potty and accidentally stepped on Boogie’s tail. No wonder he bit me on the elbow.

Aunt is unconvinced, but I have a trump card. It’s a photo of Boogie with me and my best friend (also called Carol).

My aunt studies the picture. “That doesn’t even look like Boogie.”

From this joyous collaboration come as many as three lines of writing, most of which I cross out.

So my book The Girls from Alexandria will have no dogs and no Sixth Fleet. Even so, it will still be redolent of the Alex I knew, with vendors selling charcoal-grilled ears of corn by the sea, the seafood restaurant at Abukir, next door’s cockerel with his random commentary on the day, trams laden down with human cargo both inside and out, handsome men wearing a fez even after President Nasser banned its use, and the eternal cries of “Roba bikyaah!” from the rag-and-bone man touring the neighbourhood with his donkey and cart.

The novel won’t be out till early next year, but here’s what my new publisher has to say so far.  Introducing: Carol Cooper

 

How Was IKEA for You?

The thing with going to IKEA is that it invariably takes three hours, which still isn’t enough to shop and to scoff a bargain plate of meatballs or fish and chips in the café.

IKEA Wednesbury was no different. The shop has everything, mostly things my son and I didn’t know we needed yet soon realised we couldn’t live without.

PS 2014 light. Image from ikea.com

The PS 2014 light is a case in point. By pulling its strings, you can make it open and shut, just like a transformer. Although, unlike a transformer, it is still a lampshade whatever you do. Bargain at £60 and would look great in my son’s new home. Now, what were we here for?

I get distracted by a couple arguing about the configuration of wardrobes and whether they really need a sofa bed (and which set of in-laws they can stand having as guests). Meanwhile, their kids have a pillow fight.

The cognoscenti may take crafty shortcuts through the store, but my son and I prefer not to miss anything, and the trolley soon filled up.

I’d brought my IKEA Family Card, which is why I got an email a week or so later asking for feedback on TYSNES, VILDKAPRIFOL, FLITIGHET, and TOKIG.

I’m not sure where IKEA get their product names, but then I don’t know a word of Swedish except Volvo and that’s Latin. Turns out they use many Scandinavian languages and place names in naming their wares, as this post explains

TYSNES. Image from ikea.com

TYSNES is a village in Norway. It’s also perfect for the bathroom windowsill, especially at just £19. As for the VILDKAPRIFOL, sorry, but, despite the attractive blue pattern, they’re still in the carrier bag.

VILDKAPRIFOL. Image from ikea.com

The FLITIGHET are great, but then what could go wrong with plain white side plates? Alas, I can’t comment on the TOKIG. I’d wanted a salad spinner for ages, but had forgotten that I’d taken the train, so the thing had to stay at my son’s in Birmingham instead of coming home with me.

The thing is, you can forget a lot after 90 minutes in IKEA, and common sense goes out the window. Perhaps that’s why, when nearly leaving the store, it’s almost impossible to ignore the Bargain Corner. The trolley is never quite laden enough to resist the charms of knock-down prices for knocked-about products, like a coat rack with a couple of hooks missing.

IKEA neglected to ask for my views of the humble RӦRT, a fine wooden spoon with endless possibilities. Have you never made spoon dolls? Admittedly my children have long grown out of such rainy day activities, but all you need for this wholesome fun is a Sharpie (or, better, a Magic Marker with a scent that takes me right back to the sixties), and then some fabric for a dress. Why, I could even use one of those pretty VILDKAPRIFOL tea towels.

IKEA also forgot to solicit my opinion of the BӒSTIS. I deem it 75p well spent as it prevents everything I own from turning ginger. It’s well named, too, as Bast was the Ancient Egyptian goddess of cats and her cult centre was Bubastis.

MISHMISH. Not available from IKEA

Far and away my best buy was, on that occasion as on most others, only 50p. Aptly named, the FRAKTA is generally purchased by the checkout when everyone is a bit fractious, even they’ve managed not to drop a BILLY bookcase on their foot.

The FRAKTA after deployment

It may not look much, but it is a workhorse. As the catalogue has it, Be it shopping, doing laundry or going to the beach, it goes wherever you go.”

Except it doesn’t. I always leave mine at home and having to buy another carrier bag at the store.

We caught up at the checkout with the quarrelling couple and the bouncy children, by then pacified by the promise of ice cream. Shopping at IKEA can be stressful, but it doesn’t detract from the chain’s iconic status.

Do you have a great IKEA story? Perhaps you even know someone who met their partner there, as opposed to just arguing with the one they went shopping with. I’d love to hear from you.

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You may also enjoy this post on Feedback Frenzy.

Are We Nearly There Yet? Ten Tips for Holidays with Children

About now, there’s a plethora of advice on the best holiday destinations with children, from Aldeburgh to Zanzibar. While I haven’t taken my brood to all of these places, I’ve ratcheted up enough child miles to feel able to share some essential tips.

1 When it comes to earplugs, Boules Quies are the best bet. You might consider giving them to the passengers next to you as well. On his first transatlantic flight, one of my little darlings yelled “Not fleepy! Not fleepy!” for six and a half hours solid, before finally nodding off from exhaustion on landing.

2 Have two versions of whichever cuddle toy your child can’t live without. Otherwise, as sure as eggs is eggs, it will get lost as soon as you arrive, resulting in expensive daily journeys back to the airport to see if it’s been handed in.

3 Take plenty of footwear, just in case one child throws his sibling’s shoes into a stream. May as well take plenty of clothes too, in case it’s a whole child that gets shoved into the water.

4 Pack all the medicines you might possibly need and – this is the really vital bit – keep all of them out of reach of your children once you get to your accommodation.

5 Ditto take (and use) twice as much sunscreen as you think necessary.

6 If it’s a bucket-and-spade holiday, why not choose a sturdy spade? I wish I had when one of mine bellowed on a wide deserted beach “The poo’s come back into my bum again and this time it’s not going away!”

7 Keep a few coins handy. You never know when, or where, a milk tooth might fall out, and I don’t think the Tooth Fairy does MasterCard.

8 Allow your children to bring back the treasure they collect on holiday, be it seashells, driftwood, or empty crisp packets because there are special tokens on the back.

9 Some children like to write what they did on holiday, a lovely quiet activity that’s also useful preparation for the inevitable school assignment in September. Here’s my tip: make sure they jot down more than just Then Mummy had another bottle of wine.

10 Take plenty of photos before they grow up too much. In no time at all, these will be the good old days.

Bonnes vacances!

A Cambridge Christmas (and this year Carol’s at King’s!)

This year marked the 100th anniversary of The Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols at King’s College Chapel. And, before the grammar Nazis pick me up on the extra apostrophe in the title, this Carol was there too.

While I normally watch Carols from King’s on TV, glass of fizz in hand, this Christmas we made an early start to attend the real thing. 

Mishmish

Why are the hoomins up at 2.30am?

Because, dear Mishmish, this is what the queue for tickets looked like at 3 am.

Yes, it really was that early, and tickets weren’t going to be handed out till 7am.

Not that I’m complaining. Some people had camped outside the college for three days, despite the rain.  The weather was fine when I got there, if a little chilly. No wonder people had their warmest coats, hats, sleeping bags, sheets of tin foil, etc.

The motley crowd had more than a touch of the Canterbury Tales, with people from all over. Originally a gift to the people of Cambridge, the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols is now a gift to the world.

The queue is finally on the move.

And here’s where the precious tickets are handed out, but only if you remembered to bring ID.

Now it’s time for the hardy types to pack up and go home for a few hours’ rest.

It’ll be a doddle.

Totes got the hang of this.

It must all fit.  Although…  could be worth turning the bike around.

Maybe a couple of minor adjustments.

Nailed it!

And here’s yet another happy camper, complete with dining chair.

No idea who this was, but they were a lot more stylish.

Outside King’s Chapel around 2pm.

Building started on the chapel in 1446 under Henry VI and took over a century to build.

It has the largest fan vault ceiling anywhere, and some of the finest medieval stained glass.

Just before the service began, it looked like this.

As always, the opening carol is ‘Once in Royal David’s City’, starting with a spine-tingling solo voice from the back of the chapel. There’s always a new, specially commissioned carol. The 3pm service is not the Carols from King’s, which is pre-recorded for BBC TV earlier in December, and broadcast a couple of hours later on Christmas Eve.

You can see the 1918 Order of Service here.

The crowd files out into the dusk.

Mist had already descended over the Backs.

By contrast, we slept well into Christmas Day.  Christmas dinner was at Six, a restaurant with 360⁰ views of the city.

This view shows Charlotte and Harriet asking the waiter whether the gravy is vegetarian.

This shot of St John’s Chapel didn’t turn out quite as planned, but it’s jolly all the same.

Here’s hoping you all had a wonderful Christmas. See you in the queue next year?

Could These Be the Best Ever Books for Christmas?

Well, I think these six books might be. They’re all books I’ve received for Christmas, and they’ve become my all-time favourites. What do you reckon of my choice?

1 First up, THE classic Christmas poem. This 1949 edition of Clement C Moore’s The Night Before Christmas is suitably vintage, though true nostalgics hardly need it as they know every word already.

The Night Before Christmas

2 For those after something different, there’s An Aussie Night Before Christmas. Roos take the place of reindeer, and Santa finds the traditional costume far too hot for a barbie on the beach.

An Aussie Night Before Christmas

3 Best children’s book ever, in my opinion, is Charlotte’s Web. “Where’s Papa going with that axe?” says eight-year old Fern in the opening to the tale of Wilbur the pig and Charlotte the spider who helps save him. Even if you don’t know the book, you may recognise a Templeton, the rat who never does anything for anybody unless there is something in it for him.

Charlotte's Web

You don’t agree with me about Charlotte’s Web? “That’s the most terrible case of injustice I ever heard,” I will reply, quoting Fern.

4 OK, fine. Maybe you prefer The Wind in the Willows, with Ratty, Mole, Badger, and Mr Toad? As you see, I loved this book to pieces as well.

The Wind in the Willows

5 The Essential Shankly isn’t a matter of life and death, unless you’re a Liverpool fan, in which case it’s far more important than that. Football books and biographies make great Christmas gifts, and the wit and wisdom of Bill Shankly come in handy on so many occasions, including Merseyside derbies and pub quizzes. Also useful for those who rarely do housework. Shankly used to clean the oven whenever his team lost. To be fair, that wasn’t very often.

The Essential Shankly

6 The long read. This is the sixth edition, dated 1872 – newer versions are available. At 403 pages densely crammed with text, not counting the extensive glossary, Origin of Species is probably not for everyone on your list. But I can imagine an awkward teenager getting stuck into it to avoid social interaction over the Christmas period.

Origin of Species

 

Go on. Books make perfect Christmas gifts, and your local bookshop is brimming with great ideas.

What are the favourite books you’ve received as presents? I’d love to hear from you.

Are You Proper Old Yet? Ten Ways to Tell

Sixty is the new thirty, they say.

Well, I have news for them, and for you. It isn’t.  

FreeImages.com/C Glass

While there’s no precise age at which one suddenly becomes old, there is a constellation of telling symptoms that can serve as a guide.  While I’ve written on the subject before, this time I’ve devised a highly scientific questionnaire to determine whether you are in fact properly old.

1. You need to sit down to put your socks or tights on. On the rare occasions that you don’t, it’s because you can’t find your socks.

2. Despite turning up the volume on the TV, you still can’t hear the dialogue, let alone grasp the plot.

3. You once had legendary nights out. These days, a nice cup of tea and a slice of Battenberg cake are far more appealing.

Royal Doulton teacup

4. Besides, high heels have become intolerable.

5. You’re shorter and your back is more bent than it used to be, and now you can no longer correct your posture by sitting up straight. Don’t you wish you’d listened to your mother?

6. You always make sure you wrap up warm, just as your mother told you to.  In fact, you now realise she was right about everything. Including those winkle-picker shoes. FreeImages.com/Terri-Ann Hanalon

7. Health is now a major preoccupation. If you and your friends were to stop discussing medical problems, there’d be no conversation at all.

8. On the rare occasions that you’re not collecting a prescription, you still make use of the chair the pharmacist keeps by the counter.

FreeImages.com/Alfonso Lima9. Of course, you groan with relief every time you sit down.

10. You may well have an iPhone and use Siri. Your most common request? “Siri, tell me what I’m doing here.”

There may be one or two other pointers as well. Please pitch in and let me know what I’ve missed out. Sorry, but my memory isn’t quite what it used to be. Can’t imagine why.

***

In case you missed it, The Times newspaper has just published a piece called Let the Elderly Make Love, Not Cocoa.

Ten Things I Wish I’d Known Before Having a Baby

Before I had children, I thought I was reasonably well educated on the topic of babies. After all, I was a family doctor. I had treated plenty of them. But there’s nothing like hands-on experience with your own bundle of joy to highlight how unfit you are to take charge of one.

FreeImages.com/S S

Here are ten things I soon learned when I had my first baby.

1 That little scrap of human, even covered in blood and vernix (plus, in my son’s case, meconium) was the most beautiful thing ever. It was impossible not to fall in love at first sight.

2 Baby boys are like high-pressure hosepipes on the loose. At the first nappy change, the little man peed in his own eyes. The next time, it was his father’s eye. I got adept at using a spare terry nappy as a shield.

3 The doorbell always rings just as you’ve settled yourself and the baby for a feed.

4 A gin and tonic is an excellent substitute for bathtime. Bathing is a wet experience for all concerned and young babies don’t always enjoy it. Topping and tailing is enough at first, with a full bath every other day.

FreeImages.com/Stephanie Berghaeuser

5 It’s never the ideal time to return to work, but I regretted going back at six weeks. Unfortunately, there was no locum doctor available, and I felt morally obliged not to leave colleagues in the lurch.

6 Babies need a lot less sleep than their parents. After all, they don’t have to face the boss in the mornings.

7 Moses baskets are pretty but overrated. Instead of using it for long daytime naps, as I imagined he would, my first son used his twice before the cat commandeered it.

8 It was delightful to cradle that tiny sweet-smelling bundle in my arms as his eyes gently closed. However, around the age of six months, babies learn to stay awake on purpose when they want to. Well before then, it would have been wise to encourage him to doze off unaided.

9 I should have put all non-essential activities on hold in the first three months. Memo to those who wash net curtains weekly or iron the tea towels: please stop it now. And yes, on looking back, going back to work was a non-essential activity too.

10 The most important lesson was to put the little guy first, before anyone else. But that, of course, is exactly as it should be. 

Now, with Parenting 101 under my belt, I would be well prepared for a second pregnancy. That was before I discovered that the next baby was bringing a pal along to share the fun.

 

Beware: Umbrellas at Large

Has someone out there been doing a rain dance? The sun is a distant memory, the brollies are out in force, and it’s pretty clear it’s not all Mary Poppins and Singin’ in the Rain.

I know, beach parasols aren’t entirely innocent. A sudden gust can give your sunshade wings, and propel it at speed into the chest or brain

But rain umbrellas are in another class of spikiness altogether, with sharp edges and points just where you least want them. It’s hard to protect yourself on crowded pavements in the rain when’s everyone’s scurrying about brandishing their weapons as they dodge the puddles.

In Cambridge’s narrow streets, there’s the added danger of tourists stopping without warning to take selfies, and tour leaders waving extra umbrellas around to show their group where they are.

From their origins centuries ago (nobody seems sure how many) as protection for the privileged, umbrellas are now as common as muck. Hundreds of millions of brollies are sold every year, and often break just as quickly, making them even more hazardous.

My husband negotiated the last downpour uninjured, but his thumb took a hit when closing his brolly. After all, everyone knows it’s bad luck to leave it open inside the house, right?

I escaped unscathed that rainy afternoon, possibly because I kept reminding the OH not to stab me in the eye. Nearly a fifth of umbrella-related accidents affect the eye, many of these being conjunctival tears. Spokes are the main cause, but even the rubber end of a rainshade can lead to eye injuries, according to a review from Monash University in Australia.

Their review concludes that umbrellas shouldn’t be used as toys. Sound advice, especially if you’ve read about the 11-year old who impaled his little brother with a piece of wire ribbing poked through the keyhole. The 5-year old was taken to the doctor but lost his eye, shortly followed by his life. 

Swans shun brollies. Unfurl yours and you may find yourself at the wrong end of a powerful beak.

The most high profile umbrella-linked death was that of Georgi Markov, the Bulgarian writer and dissident murdered in September 1978 by a ricin pellet concealed in the tip of his assassin’s umbrella. Forty years on, the suspect is still at large. I’m told the case has links to the KGB. Obviously, I couldn’t possibly comment.

Please let me know your best umbrella stories. I’m really hoping one of you has an uplifting tale to share in this rainy season. If not, I’ll just have to stay in and listen to the Hollies’ Bus Stop one more time.

#TBT Coping with Summer Heat in the 1960s

If you consider summer a tad too warm in the UK, spare a thought for those who spend this time of year in Washington, DC.  The suburbs are tolerable but the city is hot and humid, as I well know from the years my mother and I lived there in a cramped apartment in Foggy Bottom.

Nobody much considered the environment in the Sixties, and most buildings were fiercely air conditioned at the time. The outside, of course, is not, until evening sets in and the scent of honeysuckle fills the air.

It was just as the Lovin’ Spoonful described in their 1966 hit Summer in the City.

The mercury regularly hit the mid to high 90s, or about 34⁰-37⁰ C. I took my driving test one August around midday in a VW Bug aka Beetle (no air con). The Dept of Motor Vehicles takes your photo for the licence just after you pass, and for the next five years my sweaty physiog was a glamorous reminder of the occasion.

FreeImages.com/Jeramey Jannene

The Potomac may look inviting, but it’s polluted. If you wanted to cool down, you had to head to a pool. One of our favourites was the public pool on Volta Place, Georgetown, which is still open. The queues were often long, but entry was free though I think the rudimentary lockers required a dime. There wasn’t much there about from the pool and concrete all around. I remember a couple of Egyptians who loudly admired my 14-year old derrière, until my mother yelled at them in fluent Arabic.

Rock Creek Park runs across the NW segment of DC. It now has a lot more organized leisure facilities than it did back then, when it was little more than a haven of shade. My best memory of the park was a summer day camp run by the recreation department. It was free for city kids and my mother wangled three consecutive placements for me, so I spent six happy weeks identifying leaves, creating shoe racks out of fallen branches, and singing the campfire classic We Ain’t Got the Money for the Mortgage on the Farm.  Inexplicably, we also put on a nativity play. Yes, in August. It was as hot as hell wearing the Virgin Mary’s cloak.

I don’t plan to go back to DC just yet, but I will be visiting my US family as usual later this summer.

Meanwhile I’d love to hear your summer memories and great suggestions for keeping cool.

***

You may also enjoy The March on Washington.

 

#TBT Alexandria, 1956

I’ve blogged before about Suez, because it’s when my mother wrote her first book. This week, Nadia, a character from my next novel, gives her own take on 1956.

It began on July 26, when I was ten and a half years old, or, as I preferred to say, nearly eleven. The whole affair was about a canal and a dam.

Here’s the crucial thing: President Gamal Abdel Nasser was most interested in canals and dams.

Nasser was a very big man, with a strong jaw and huge teeth that he displayed whenever he smiled. That night in 1956 was the anniversary of the revolution, so the president celebrated by giving a long speech, right here in Alexandria, in Mansheya Square, where there’s a massive statue of Mohammed Ali Pasha, wearing a turban and brandishing his sword, sitting atop his horse.

As usual when anything interesting happened, I had been sent to bed instead of being allowed to stay up. My parents told me about the speech the next day, which is hardly the same thing. I relished the idea of Nasser brandishing his words like a sword, and I was especially sorry to miss the firemen dispersing the crowds. FreeImages.com/AntonioJimenezAlonsoAlthough I had no real opinions on politics, I liked listening to the president on the radio. Unlike a lot of important men who like to make themselves sound clever by speaking in a formal version of Arabic, Nasser spoke a colloquial language that every Egyptian could understand, even a child of nearly eleven. That, I thought, was much cleverer.

The day after that big speech, my sister Simone and I sat in the upstairs living room right by the air conditioning, which was on at full blast as it was sweltering. Father and Mother explained to us that the Suez Canal was now going to belong to Egypt instead of France or Britain. As a result, it would raise lots of money for Egypt, and would pay to build a High Dam at Aswan.

Mother actually put down her embroidery during this conversation, so it must have been significant. Quite how significant, I did not wholly grasp. The main thing was that the Suez Canal had been nationalized. That was a good thing, wasn’t it? Unless you happened to be British or French, like some of my friends from school.

In October, a few countries turned out not to be so happy about Egypt having the Suez Canal. Our parents did not explain that very clearly. Meanwhile, our nanny Rashida lit more candles than ever to the Virgin Mary and to St Anthony.

Even when she wasn’t praying, Rashida went about muttering to herself. I thought I heard her say that things had been much better under King Farouk, but, when I asked her to repeat herself, she flatly refused.

It got a lot clearer when France, Britain, and Israel all ganged together to declare war on Egypt. Every night there were air-raid sirens and anti-aircraft guns. Victor, my pain of a cousin, kept going on about it. With our schools shut, he was unfortunately at our house more often than ever. According to him, the guns were as close as Smouha, barely a few kilometres from us. I pretended to be unconcerned.

Every bedtime, Mother told Simone and me that things would turn out all right. We had blackout paper on all the windows now. It was all going to be fine, Mother said. 

It did however change things for many of my friends, and for my teddy bears, at least one of whom was British.

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