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.

20TH CENTURY MEDICINE, EGYPTIAN STYLE

Covid-19 has already altered medical practice forever but, thinking back, there’ve been many changes in medicine over the years. Most have been more gradual than the ones made necessary by this pandemic, but no less dramatic. The NHS care that I practise, and receive, is far removed from the care I experienced as a child growing up in Egypt.

With my mother in the garden

Antibiotics were few back then, and usually given by injection with a freshly boiled syringe and a reusable needle. I can still feel the cold oily pain of penicillin as it inched its way from my bottom down my leg.

“I don’t want an injection!”

Penicillin was better absorbed in this way than by mouth. There was also a trend of sparing a patient’s delicate digestion, hence the usual recovery diet of rice with boiled chicken, as recommended by every doctor. If the patient ran a fever, suppositories were deemed preferable to a couple of Aspro.

The French occupation of Egypt may also explain how often the middle and upper classes suffered from liver complaints. “C’est de la bile, chérie.” At least bilious attacks can be genuine. A tired liver or le foie fatigué isn’t even a real diagnosis.

Injections of vitamin B12 were popular in the mid-20th century, and not just for cases of proven deficiency. The impressive bright red colour of B12 flowing into a vein could hardly fail to make the patient feel better, never mind what was actually wrong with her.

The divide between haves and have nots dominated every aspect of life in Egypt. With no national health provision, the poor died young, blindness from trachoma was common, and amputees were everywhere.

If you could afford one, your family doctor would visit whenever requested, often with a cigarette in hand as he puffed his way upstairs. Once he extinguished it, he would examine the patient. As he usually wheezed more than the patient, I’m not sure he heard much through his stethoscope.

Granny waiting for the doctor to arrive

What medicine lacked by way of treatments back then was made up for by personal attention, much as alternative medicine still functions today. A little baksheesh to the receptionist ensured that you got seen ahead of others in the waiting room. It seemed unfair to me then, as a young child, and it was even less fair that most of the grownups around me couldn’t see a problem.

It’s almost incomprehensible now, but polio was a scourge that went back thousands of years. With outbreaks of paralysis among young children every summer, no wonder we all feared it. Jonas Salk’s polio vaccine didn’t come into use in the Middle East until the late 1950s. For some reason, both doses were injected into the back (not the buttock or thigh). The prospect made me run off into the garden where I promptly fell on the gravel. The two skinned knees and two grazed elbows actually hurt for longer than the polio jab. I’m pleased to say that the Salk vaccine, followed by Sabin oral vaccine, began the long road towards conquering polio worldwide.

According to hieroglyphics and papyruses, bilharzia was known to the Ancient Egyptians. The flatworms that cause the disease are water-borne, with a complicated life cycle that involves freshwater snails as an intermediate host. Bilharzia causes a heavy burden of ill-health, especially for rural children who paddle (and piddle) in the Nile or in one of the many canals. And yet, despite the toll on the population, many people living a comfortable life in Alexandria or Cairo 50 years ago had barely heard of it. The best remedy is prevention with clean water and good hygiene, so the story continues.

***

Although my forthcoming novel The Girls from Alexandria isn’t a book about medicine, you’ll find many aspects of a cosmopolitan world that has long since ceased to exist.

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.

10 Things You Didn’t Know about Hampstead

I didn’t know half of them myself till recently – and I live in Hampstead. This part of London is full of surprises.

1 Hampstead is chock full of delightful architecture, much of it Georgian, Victorian or Edwardian. Then there’s 2 Willow Road. Designed by architect Ernő Goldfinger in the 1930s, this modernist home was only made possible thanks to his wife’s great wealth.

2 Willow Road NW3

Goldfinger was a champagne socialist, which is why he concealed the servants’ bell. You could say that he wasn’t popular with everyone. Ian Fleming, you may recall, named the ultimate villain after him.

2 Nightclub hostess Ruth Ellis was the last woman to be hanged in the UK. Her crime? Shooting dead her cheating lover David Blakely in 1955 outside the Magdala Tavern. If you wander up South Hill Park in Hampstead, you’ll still be able to see the bullet holes on the wall of the pub, mainly because they’ve been enlarged with a drill.

Magdala Tavern, NW3

For a thought-provoking novel set around the Ruth Ellis story, I can highly recommend Jane Davis’s brand-new book At the Stroke of Nine O’Clock

3 The Whitestone Pond at the top of Heath Street is the highest point in London. It’s a man-made pond with ramps to let horses wash in it. A bit later, it was used for floating model boats and for paddling, earning it the name Hampstead-on-Sea. Now fringed with rushes, nobody much goes into the pond at all, but they do wander up here, and probably tell each other it’s the highest point in London.

4 Hampstead Heath covers 790 hilly acres and has something for everyone, with magnificent views over London as well as woodlands and a string of ponds, three of them for swimming (if you don’t mind cold water). The Heath enchanted author C.S. Lewis, inspiring him to write The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe

Hampstead Heath

5 Fancy a bite to eat? Hampstead has not one Streatery, but two. The Belsize Village Streatery opened for summer 2020 on the paved area of the village to help keep a wide range of local restaurants and cafés running. It brings a continental vibe to this corner of London and is an excellent place to meet friends or celebrate a special occasion. The floor is clean enough to eat off, as the saying goes, but the socially distanced tables and chairs in the square are a better bet.

Belsize Village Streatery

Following on from the success in Belsize Village, there’s also a second Streatery at South End Green.

6 Hampstead is awash with celebs. Do you know Mrs Newbie? She and her cob lived together in bliss on the Heath, until Mr Newbie died in 2016. At some point, the grieving Mrs Newbie flew off and hurt herself on a nearby roof. While at the swan sanctuary for treatment, she met fellow patient Wallace who had come from Waltham Forest. Their relationship blossomed.

pair of swans

Once both of them were well enough, they were released to Hampstead Heath’s Number One Pond and have since raised seven cygnets. Mrs Newbie had to return to the swan sanctuary earlier this year after she was attacked by a dog, but is now back with Wallace and their cygnets. Vive l’amour! 

swan with one cygnet

7 Originally from Suffolk, painter John Constable relocated when his wife developed TB. At the time, the air in Hampstead was considered a lot healthier than elsewhere. Unfortunately there were no anti-TB drugs at the time and Mary didn’t improve. Most of the family is now buried in the family tomb at St John-at-Hampstead.

Constable family tomb

8 The Royal Free Hospital in Pond Street was founded in 1828 to give free treatment to those unable to afford it. To begin with, the Royal Free was in central London, and then moved near the site of the previous Hampstead Fever Hospital, a name which inspired the title of my novel Hampstead Fever.

For years, the Royal Free was the only London teaching hospital in London to train women doctors. The Royal Free’s pioneering heritage continues. It was the first UK hospital to have a high level isolation unit (HLIU) for infectious diseases like Ebola.

Royal Free Hospital

9 Hampstead has cats. Many, many cats. This busy fluffball knows exactly where she is going. You’re lucky the others moved too fast for me to photograph them all.

long-haired Siamese cat

10 You don’t have to go into the Freud Museum to see a fine statue of Sigmund Freud. Here he is outside the Tavistock Clinic in Fitzjohn’s Avenue, leaning forward in a pose suggesting period pain. I call it womb envy.

If you know Hampstead, please leave a comment with your favourite fact about the area. Meanwhile, until September 9, you can download a copy of Hampstead Fever for just 99p/99c. 

 

The Cheat’s Guide to Cambridge

Whether you’re about to start your studies at Cambridge or just want to know a bit about this ancient university, here’s the low-down in 7 easy steps.

View of Clare from King’s Bridge

1 Cambridge is a collegiate university and, no, the 31 colleges are not all the same. The oldest is Peterhouse, founded in 1284, while Robinson only dates from 1977.

Inside Caius College (full name: Gonville & Caius)

There are postgrad-only colleges (Clare Hall and Darwin), four colleges specifically for mature students, and two only for women (Newnham and Murray Edwards).

Newnham College

Mixed colleges are a fairly recent introduction. Until 1972, the vast majority of colleges were all male. With a sex ratio of 10 to one, it was much harder for a woman to get a place. If she wanted male company once she got into Cambridge, however, all she had to do was show up and breathe.

Each college has a bespoke woollen scarf in college colours. Whichever college you attend, the scarf is very scratchy.

Newnham Bear in college scarf

2 There are no mountains between Cambridge and the Urals, so winters can be chilly. Thanks to the easterly winds, most students sport a cold wet nose by November. It’s said to be a sign of good health in animals, though not in undergraduates.

3 Geography is generally ignored. Most people still call Cambridge a town though it’s actually a city. Although it is very flat, one still goes UP to Cambridge and DOWN to London. Nobody ever mentions Oxford, or they simply call it ‘the other place.’ Should you be forced to write it down, it’s traditional to use a lower case O for its name. This petty snobbishness is totally misplaced because Cambridge University was founded by scholars who fled Oxford.

Outside Great St Mary’s Church

4 The Cambridge Union is not a union. It’s a debating society. There was no students’ union at all until 1971, and even then it had no premises for its members, just a tiny office for those who ran it. It was in Round Church St, an address many dossers knew well as they turned up regularly for handouts.

5 You’re here to learn? Oh, right. Well, in that case you need to know that the Faculty or Department arranges your lectures, seminars, and lab work. Your college arranges small group sessions called supervisions which take place in the college, or in university buildings. And accommodation is almost always within college.

Where the atom was split

Each broad subject area is called a Tripos, eg Economics Tripos, Natural Sciences Tripos (which includes subjects from Physics to Cell Biology). These are divided into parts and students complete a number of parts in one or more Triposes to qualify for the BA degree. Yes, the basic degree is BA Hons whether you’re reading sciences or arts. Hold on to it for another few years, and it upgrades to an MA without any further study.

The word Tripos is so popular that end of year exams are also called Tripos. The name comes from the three-legged stool exam candidates used to sit on.

In BA gown & hood on Degree Day

6 From April to about October, cattle graze on picture-perfect common land within the City of Cambridge. It’s all very well wandering about with your nose in the air and your mind on higher things, but watch where you put your feet. Best look behind you now and again too, in case you’re being followed.

This cow wandered into a stream to cool off and she’s now munching watercress while a man serenades her with his violin.

7 Pets aren’t generally welcome in College, though, especially not dogs. When Lord Byron was forbidden to keep a dog, he got himself a bear for his room in Trinity. More recently, the Master of Selwyn was only allowed his basset hound when the College Council ruled that Yoyo was, in fact, a very large cat. I don’t know what they thought of its ears.

Welcome to Cambridge!

King’s College Chapel seen from the Backs on a frosty morning

Memories of Beirut

Explosions are nothing new in Beirut. My childhood visits to the city were punctuated by car bombs. I’d grab my mother’s hand and ask why. Usually there was an election on. Lebanese elections were not always orderly, and the many factions were particularly competitive in the 1960s.

But none of those explosions came close to this week’s huge blast, said to have been felt as far away as Cyprus. It was the very last thing this debt-stricken country needed.

Photo by H Assaf from FreeImages

My grandfather’s family came from Ehden, then just a small mountain town in North Lebanon, not far from Tripoli. The Arabic name for Tripoli is Troublos which tells you a lot about the country. The history of Lebanon has been nothing if not turbulent. And yet there was so much to admire and enjoy, as any Lebanese person will gladly tell you, in great detail.

Photo by <a href="/photographer/timot-37385">Csaba Moldovan</a> from <a href="https://freeimages.com/">FreeImages</a>

This tiny country boasts (I use the word advisedly) snow-capped mountains and bright blue sea. Why, you could ski in the morning and water-ski in the afternoon. And did you know that St George slayed the dragon right near the centre of Beirut, in St George’s Bay?

Until civil war began in the 1970s, Beirut was the Paris of the Middle East. The main cultural influence was French and the city was famed for its night life, restaurants, glamour, intellectual society, and tourism. Scratch that. It was the Paris of the entire world.

Photo by José A. Warletta from FreeImages

I’ll bet you never realized that the Lebanese invented online shopping. Why, even 50 years ago, I saw housewives lowering their baskets on a line from their balconies down to street level, their order either written on a list in the basket or, more often, relayed at full volume to the shopkeeper below.

As for taxis, Beirut pioneered the ‘service’ type which is a shared cab and much cheaper than regular taxis. To find a service, all you do is stand at a corner and a service driver will screech to a stop and carry you off, even if all you wanted was to cross the street. You might share a ride with a Maronite priest, a tourist, a student, a huge housewife clutching bunches of herbs, or whoever happened to be standing there. The drivers all drive with one hand out the window, the other giving you back your change, and the head turned back to see if you are happy. You’d better be, because if you’re not, they’ll sing along with the music on the radio and never look at the road again. There are fewer accidents than you’d expect. Every chauffeur has a string of blue beads hanging over the mirror to keep the Evil Eye and other drivers at bay.

I recall being disappointed with the Cedars. There were only about 40 of them left, and locals happened to be using them at the time to hang carcasses of various animals they were selling. But not far away there was a magnificent picnic spot by a stream. I drank from it with my hands and it was the iciest and best water I had ever tasted.

Photo by Edith Hdz from FreeImages

There’s no shortage of historic sights in Lebanon, so it puzzled me that for many years their postage stamps bore not photos of ancient monuments but images of fruit. Then again, the Lebanese are big on food. Nothing in Lebanon is small, except the country itself which is half the size of Israel.

Over the years, many Lebanese have left the country for bigger pastures. New York has long been a favourite. The city never sleeps and everything in the USA, especially the steaks, are twice as big as they should be, so it’s the natural destination for a young person making their way in life. The Lebanese have a deserved reputation for being good at making money, and a great many of them have succeeded in the New World.

I won’t even try to unpick the current economic situation which was dire even before this massive explosion. There’s no hope of ever recreating Beirut’s former glory, but there’s every reason to save as many lives as possible. My own cousins living near Beirut are safe. Thousands weren’t so lucky.

If you can, please help. The Lebanese Red Cross is non-partisan and is a good place to start.

What I Did on My Staycation – a Day Out in Norfolk

Never mind how newspapers and magazines use the word. In line with the real meaning of staycation (staying at home and making day trips), we set out with a full tank and a vague sense that we might end up in North Norfolk. I’m married to a Norfolk boy, and I hasten to add that I am not his sister.

“Think bike,” I said as we left home. I was only repeating what I’d read on a road safety sign but, with my OH, it triggers dreams of his beloved Bonneville and Suzuki V-twin, along with reminiscences of his speedway days. I woke him from his reverie before we hit a hapless pedestrian.

How I’d missed the sights and sounds of rural Britain during lockdown – and the smells. First stop Lakenheath where USAF fighter jets were about to take off. We’re merely opportunistic spotters, but lined up against the chain link fence were all kinds of spotters and their cars, plus a mobile snack bar to sustain life during a long wait.

The air, heavy with the scent of aviation fuel, throbs when the F-15s come to life. Their roar is unlike anything outside Cape Canaveral and I defy anyone not to feel stirred as the planes gather speed.

I tried to capture the excitement with my Huawei which, I’m told, beams every image direct to China. Sorry to disappoint you, Beijing, but all I got was a high-res view of galvanised metal fencing.

To save you the trouble of going all the way to Lakenheath, this video gives you an idea, though it’s only a tiny sample of the experience. You’ll need to imagine standing a few hundred yards away with your fingers rammed in your ears.

By way of a complete contrast, the second stop of the day was a Norfolk village where ducks outnumber humans and reading seems popular, if the phone box is anything to go by.

I won’t reveal the name of the village, but this little clip might recreate the duck pond for you without using any petrol.

On to Burnham Market, a postcard-perfect town where Hunter wellies are de rigueur, which made sense as it was raining by then. Hungry by then, we stopped at Tilly’s café for lunch. With no free tables left inside, we hunkered down beneath a shrubby honeysuckle.

I can never go to Norfolk in the summer without buying samphire. It grows around tidal creeks and estuaries, but I usually get mine at a stall by the side of the road, where you can pick up a small bag of the stuff in return for a few coins left in a well rusted honesty box. The first bunch I bought this week turned out to still have its roots attached, which unfortunately means that picking it sacrificed the whole plant. The other bunch I bought came in a plastic bag full of water. Although you can sometimes buy samphire in supermarkets, freshly picked bunches taste much better and you also get the experience of salt water sloshing in your Converses as you drive home.

In the spirit of sharing my day out, here’s a recipe for hot samphire and potato salad from the Easy Cheesy Vegetarian. It even works without the potatoes.

We then stopped at one or two of our favourite beaches for a paddle in the sea. The Med it ain’t, but it’s the epitome of a British summer. This is a three-wheeler we saw in Cromer. Looked like a Morgan, but it’s more probably a kit car enjoying an outing.

We headed home for samphire and salmon after a happy day.

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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