Tuesday 2 August 2016

"We could do with thousands more like you...."

This particular post describes a kind of tribute - well, both a tribute and a present rolled into one.

I have spent the past few days joyfully putting together a memory box for a friend who reaches her 99th birthday on August 2nd.   This time last week I had not yet worked out what I could give her as a present - it's quite hard to buy things for someone of 99 when you already know that chocolates, flowers and bottles of Scotch will be pouring in from elsewhere!

For once I am going to be able to answer the question that inevitably comes - "How long did it take you?"   Usually I mumble something like "Well, first you need an idea, then you need to find the right container, and after that it's usually quite fast".   In this case, the idea came five days ago and with time so short, I did not have the luxury of musing too long on the container.   There was a handy wooden tea box sitting waiting on top of the wardrobe in the guest room.   And since it is neatly divided into six small sections, about two and three quarter inches square, that at once defined how much space I would need to fill.

It turned out not to be how much space I needed to fill however, but rather "How do I fit a life of 99 years into such a small space?"

Three sections filled themselves - where she came from, how she found herself in rural Hertfordshire, and food and drink.   Then once I had looked around at what I had available - in Small Worlds it's actually not really a matter of what is available, it's rather can Gil find it in the time she needs to - the other sections fell into place.   Travel and fashion, animals and leisure time and of course, a celebratory corner.   It is, after all, a birthday present.

She was born in 1917 within the sound of Bow Bells and has remained a proud cockney all these years. 

Incidentally, I was fascinated to discover that, because of the rise of ambient noise and the number of high buildings in the area, the sound of Bow Bells now covers a much smaller area than it used to, as you can see from the sound map.  
And since there are no maternity hospitals within that remaining blue area, there will sadly not be many more true Cockneys born in London.

Her father was killed six weeks after she was born and her mother had to take in washing to make ends meet.   The life of a war widow in those days was truly hard.   But the childhood memories of growing up in Bethnal Green are clearly very happy ones - apart from having to deliver the heavy parcels of clean laundry, for little or no reward.....   
Rose passed the scholarship exam into a Central School, the only one in her street to do so, and no small achievement in those days.  She still remembers some lines from As you Like It, in which she clearly must have taken the lead:
(to DUKE SENIOR ) To you I give myself, for I am yours.
(to ORLANDO ) To you I give myself, for I am yours.

The Columbia Road Flower Market already existed but was a very different place from the tourist delight it has long since become.  The children used to gather up the flower heads left at the end of the day's selling and make little gardens in the mud.   A day out in Victoria Park was a great treat, although often hampered by having to look after a neighbour's young child, when little more than a child oneself.   The Bethnal Green Museum was a suitable place to meet nice young men.....

When the second world war in Rose's lifetime arrived, she decided to join the Land Army and that took her to what was then rural Hertfordshire, to work on one of the many nurseries in the Lea Valley.   She never returned to the East End to live but still retained her love for it.   And the work in the nursery led to a life-long love of gardening, even though her early days there had brought some surprises - such as the fact that cucumbers grow hanging downwards!

The Land Army more or less fed the nation during the war years - one man was so inspired by watching one girl working he was moved to write a poem 

To all Land Girls - from an admirer 

I saw a Land Girl working
Alone in an open field.
Her, hard, once elegant, hands
A stalwart hoe did wield.
Her back was bent as she slew the weeds
That spoiled the potatoes' growth;
She never wilted, she never paused,
She had taken her silent oath. At last the day was nearly done,
The sun was sinking low;
She gathered up her jacket
Then slowly cleaned her hoe.
She passed the chair where I sat
(I am feeble in body and sight).
She smiled at me as she said
Been hot to-day. Good-night.''

We hear the valiant deeds of our men in

"furrin parts,"

Deeds which bring the tears to our eyes, a

glow of pride to our heart-
But when the war is over and peace at last
I shall always remember the Land Girl, who
made her hoe her sword.

It wasn't until I met her that I realised how passionate East Enders are about seafood.   Pie and mash shops abounded, serving not only pies but jellied eels in parsley sauce, Jewish shops sold pickled herrings straight from the barrel, a "beigel" with smoked salmon was a rare treat, and fish and chips (known as potatoes) were served up in newspaper.  Two penn'orth would buy you a lot!  Vinegar came with everything, even chili vinegar on the jellied eels.

To this day Rose enjoys fish and chips, eels and cockles - thoroughly doused in vinegar of course.   Hence the giant bottle of Sarsons in the corner!   

And what better to accompany them but a half of Guinness?   After all, it is good for you!

This is a memory box and amongst Rose's memories are ones about lovely holidays - starting with a week in Southend with her mother every year where they stayed in a boarding house, bought their own breakfast, and the landlady cooked it.   This was known as 'Bed and Attendance'.  They went up to bed by candlelight....

Then many holidays in the north, visiting Blackpool and the Lake District, coach trips in Europe and at least two cruises....and always smartly dressed, with hair just so.   Nothing changed there then.....

At home the bicycle was of great importance - down
the lanes (busy roads now!) to the local pub for a quick game of darts.  Or maybe dominoes.  And always lots of visitors, often bedding down for the night where they could find a space. 

They may have had to fight the cat for it!

The last section of the memory box is really just to bring Rose my very best wishes for a wonderful birthday - I am writing this on the eve of flying back to the UK to raise a glass with her and I cannot think of a better toast than the words on the Land Army recruiting poster - Rose, we could do with thousands more like you!   Happy Birthday...... 

I finish with a few photos of the work in progress - and for the curious, the stats - 17 hours to make, which includes 5 hours of assembling and sticking things down - 120 things to glue and I didn't count the individual cockles either!

Not a scrap of red paint in Small Worlds - are these tomatoes too orange I wonder?

Mixing red doesn't work - so no red bike!

How on earth does one make jellied eels?

Hmm, broken window screen glass looks a bit like jelly....

Rose loves marmalade - hope she like Silver Shred...

I know that she prefers milk chocolate

Nearly there with the eels - now to peer at a photo to get the skin colour right....

I hope to see you all again when I get back to Small Worlds next week - I have plans for a new window display.  See you soon and thank you for joining me today.