THOUGHTS ON WORLD BOOK DAY

World Book Day is about every child and young person getting a book of their own, but it has also made me think around the topic of children and books.

I was about four or five years old when my mother began writing her first book, Cocktails and Camels. She did it in my room, it being the sunniest one in my grandparents’ house in Alexandria where we all lived.

As if that weren’t bad enough, silence was required while my mummy filled reams of paper with her pencilled scrawl. Sometimes she stopped to smile at what she’d written, and occasionally she even laughed, but she rarely read any of it out loud to me. Here’s a tip if you ever want to annoy a child: make sure they have no idea what’s going on, then demand they keep absolutely quiet during it.

After some time, I piped up. “I’m going to write a book too!”

Because it’s also #throwbackThursday aka #TBT, you’re getting this of my mother and me in the garden.

I did end up writing books and, like my mother, I use pencil and paper for my first drafts. The novels are entirely made up, but where do the characters come from? I don’t know. They come from here and there, I suppose, from snatches of conversation or a chance sighting of someone so offbeat that they beg to be put in a book.

They also come from ill-defined experiences that go way back and suddenly decide to leap into my head. This they usually do in the middle of the night, and I have to jot it all down on paper lest I forget, which I’m told can be annoying when it happens at 2am, and again at 4am.

As I recall, my mother was apt to do this too. And no, it’s not ‘annoying’. I prefer to think of it as the circle of writing life.

I’m very proud of my mother and all her books, including those for children, but especially this one as it’s a warm and witty tribute to the cosmopolitan Alexandria that I loved and was home.

And now my childhood has led to a novel set in the same world that no longer exists. You may know this already from my frequent mentions of The Girls from Alexandria which is out next month. I’m sorry that my mother isn’t around to enjoy it, or to hear me say how much I owe her.

***

Enough of this wallowing in sentiment. It’s not just World Book Day and Throwback Thursday. It’s also Mishmish’s tenth birthday. Her name is Arabic for apricot and she is a goddess.

كل سنة و إنتي طيبة يا مشمش

Kul sena wa inti tayyeba ya Mishmish which means Many happy returns, Mishmish.

THE CAMERA NEVER LIES

How I treasure old photos. They feature a bygone age, with bygone people that I loved so much and still miss.

Here are my great-grandparents with six of their seven children, including my grandmother, great aunts, and great uncles.  As usual, my great-grandfather wore a fez.

My great-grandparents Abdullah and Aspasie with their two eldest children

A fez was normal headgear in Egypt at the time. Until the revolution in 1952, it was essential in the civil service, the armed forces, and the police. Worn at an angle, it could cut quite a dash, until a gust of wind made off with it. My grandfather never took to it. He’d say, ‘As a hat it is completely useless. It neither keeps off the sun, nor the rain, nor does it keep the ears warm in winter. It is like a flowerpot, that is all. You can’t even use it to hide from someone you want to avoid.’

Still, it suited some, like my Uncle Aziz.

Looking at more recent photos, you may gather that I liked food, swans, and my aunt Muriel. None of that has changed one bit.

My mother took a lot of pictures with a bulky Kodak 35mm that accompanied her everywhere around Alexandria. We lived in Alexandria but occasionally went to Cairo to visit an aunt who had, in a moment of madness, decided to move there. Alexandrians and Cairenes generally held each other in the kind of esteem that Oxford reserves for Cambridge.

In Alexandria with my best friend, also called Carol, the camera case, and Boogie the dog

Sometimes we travelled further afield, especially in summer. This was when hordes of Cairenes arrived by train, bus, or car, bringing their children, their nannies, their cousins, their baskets, their suitcases, and their ruckus. The government, too, moved to Alex, and not an inch of beach was left. Ugh.

Mother always travelled with the camera. I remember the case as if it were yesterday. Made of brown leather with a fuzzy lining, it was an object of fascination, and now I realise that it appears in over half the pictures from my early childhood. I don’t recall what the camera itself looked like, and obviously there are no photos of it.

Lake Geneva, I think. Who cares where you are when you have a cuddly camera case?

No toy stood a chance when pitted against the appeal of the camera case. The doll was soon chucked on the ground by the deck chair.

I didn’t have a comfort blanket. With that camera case to hand, there was no need. However, as with many comfort objects, it didn’t last forever. My mother took a trip to Thailand. She returned to Alexandria sans Kodak, having dropped it in the Mae Klong river. I don’t remember what she bought to replace it. It just wasn’t the same.

Do you have old family photos? And, if so, do you enjoy them as much as I do?

***

If you’re interested, there’s lots more about twentieth-century Alexandria in my forthcoming book The Girls from Alexandria.

CHRISTMAS IN EGYPT

On this very different holiday season, I’ve been looking back on what I remember of celebrations past, when I was growing up in Alexandria.

Photo by Felix Schmitt

There were many Christian communities at the time, and Christmas trees were easy to find. Ours was always installed in the basement. You didn’t have to be a small child to think it was huge. The top reached the ceiling, leaving little room for a star. I was allowed to make paper chains, but wasn’t to fiddle with the ornaments as they were made of glass, or the lights as they were real candles.

At some point, someone fat turned up dressed as Father Christmas. I never discovered who it was, but the list of possibilities was quite long as practically every grownup man had a paunch.

My current crèche has lost most of its moss

A nativity scene always featured, complete with fake snow on the roof of the stable. I don’t know which bright spark thought there might have been snow in Bethlehem but, this being Egypt, there was ample cotton wool.

Unlike the nativity set I have today where everything is glued down, the figures could be moved around. I had fun rearranging every one while I pondered exactly why Jesus had been born in a stable. Arabs are among the most hospitable people in the world. Surely any self-respecting innkeeper would have made a bit more of an effort to find room for Mary and Joseph.

Ahlan wa sahlan’ means ‘welcome’

When my best friend (also called Carol) arrived, we’d move the figures around some more, so that each could get a good view of Baby Jesus. Carol would argue that the three wise men were entitled to the best places as they’d come such a long way. “AND they brought presents,” she added.

I couldn’t see the point of frankincense or myrrh, especially as I hadn’t a clue what they were, and I was pretty sure Jesus wouldn’t appreciate gold until he was a bit older. Anyway the sheep was missing a leg now so it had to lean against the manger to stop toppling over.

In the garden with my friend Carol, and Boogie the dog

Family was plentiful back then. As my grandmother was one of seven, there was no shortage of great-aunts and great-uncles to pinch my cheeks and tell me how much I had grown since the previous week. I can’t remember what we had for Christmas dinner as I’d be too excited to eat. One year, though, I was so high on anticipation that I threw up onto my plate.

As for many other children on Christmas Day, unwrapping presents was the main event. Sometimes the dog joined in. This was the same dog that had bitten me while I was sitting on my potty, but he’d been forgiven.

Trying to get the dog interested in playing with my new toys.

Going to the pictures was a Christmas tradition and we’d traipse out en masse to the Rialto or the Amir. Mother India was a wonderful film, though as a child I found 2 hours 52 mins on the long side. When I saw the film again years later, I stayed awake throughout and can say that Nargis played her role as Radha magnificently.

For a lucky few, Christmas meant a short break at a grand hotel in Luxor with days spent visiting the Valley of the Kings. These days, the luxury hotels are still there, but devoid of tourists.

It’s a very different world, especially this year. I hope each of you has a peaceful and restorative Christmas, even if it’s nothing like the one you’d planned. Here’s to a happier, healthier 2021.

***

My memories of growing up in Egypt inspired my new novel The Girls from Alexandria. It’ll be published April 1 by Agora Books and you can find out more here, including how to pre-order a copy if you feel so inclined.

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.