Category Archives: Memoir extract

Aren’t we lucky we still have public libraries?

The roof of Liverpool library
The roof of Liverpool library

We went to Liverpool for a long weekend to see the Chagall exhibition at Tate Liverpool and visited their wonderful new library – so different from the library I belonged to when I lived in Petticoat Lane.

From my memoir Woman in a White Coat

I joined Whitechapel library as soon as I was five. Once a week I bundled up the books I had read and walked down Wentworth Street to the Commercial Street crossing.
‘Find a big man to take you across the road and make sure you hold his hand tight,’ my mother said. ‘No skipping or messing about as you go.’
I got used to the remarks about how little my hand was, and how the books were nearly as big as me. All I wanted, was to hurry up, get to the library as quickly as possible, and borrow some new books.
Whitechapel Children’s Library was huge, with bookshelves stretching from floor to ceiling. You needed one of those rolling steps to reach the top. We were allowed to take out six books. I always chose at least one book of fairy tales and one myths and legends book. The Andrew Lang fairy books were my favourites and I was fascinated by the Aubrey Beardsley illustrations. I’d choose a book or two from the Angela Brazil’s girls’ boarding school stories and over the years moved on to boys’ books. I learned the cricket and rugby rules and thrilled to the Biggles books. I found Richmal Crompton’s ‘Just William’ books funny, but boring after the first couple.
I had to be brave if I wanted to look something up in the Children’s Encyclopaedia. I had to climb the steep stairs up to the Reference Library, hurrying past the glass cases filled with stuffed animals. The foxes, with their big teeth and staring eyes, were especially frightening, and I hated seeing the tiny stuffed birds stuck on twigs.

The Long Wait

Simon Lighter

Rupert patiently waiting for dinner 1957

Now the long wait – waiting for Stephanie’s approval and then waiting for agents to reply. Cats are very good at waiting – for us, for dinner, for the mouse to stick its head out of its hole just once more.

From my memoir Woman in a White Coat .
When I was 14 we had a tabby I named Rupert after ‘Rupert the Bear.’ At first when I came home from school he wouldn’t talk to me after I’d left him for so long, but he soon forgave me and greeted me, winding in and out of my legs and rubbing his face against me. We had a second Rupert when Josh and I were married and living in a basement flat in Hampton Street. He loved the old-fashioned claw-footed iron bath in the passageway from our bedroom to the cellars. The cold water tap always dripped. He would sit on the rim, dipping a careful paw under the tap and having a quick drink. Hot water came from an enormous gas-fired Ascot at the end of the bath. He didn’t like the explosion when we lit it. He would scurry away only to return and walk around the narrow rim, looking at us quizzically as we soaked. He came perilously close to the edge but he never fell in.

Phantom Head

The Phantom Head
The Phantom Head

I am a retired consultant pathologist but I qualified in dentistry before I studied medicine.

In our third year we learned how to do fillings, carry out extractions and perform minor oral surgery. If they are not too broken down, extracted teeth are kept, cleaned and mounted in plaster blocks fixed to a metal head with opening and closing jaws – A Phantom Head. On these we learned how to drill out caries (decay), mix fillings and pack them into the cavities. Mostly we used amalgam – a mixture of mercury and metal powder – but we also learned how to cast gold fillings.

From my memoir Woman in a White Coat

Memorising piano music

 

Handel's Suite in D minor
Handel’s Suite in D minor

I can remember numbers, text, where I’ve put things but I’ve always found memorising music very difficult. Even as a child I always played from music, even in concerts. It’s not my age – though I am 83 – it was the same when I was young. The Sarabande from the Handel suite is easy enough but I’d have to make a real effort to get it by heart. One piece stuck, though, Satie’s Gymnopoedie No 1. I didn’t try to learn it. it was just there.

I am trying to memorise Grieg’s Album Leaf.  It’s quite a simple piece – two repeated sections, one with the melody in the right hand and one with the melody in the left. I think I’ve managed the first part, but it’s been hard work. What’s so silly, is that I’ve always had trouble not remembering things, especially numbers.

I learned to play in 1942 when I was evacuated to Dawlish. My first teacher was a wonderful man, the organist at a local church.

From my memoir Woman in a White Coat
I knocked on the door of the room where the piano had been delivered the week before. The smell of cigarettes and mothballs greeted me as I pushed open the door. A short bald-headed man, wearing a rumpled dark grey pin-striped suit, stood by the piano. His waistcoat was tightly stretched across his paunch, a silver watch chain hanging between the pockets. His steel‑rimmed glasses were perched on the end of his nose and held together with sticky tape. On the top of his forehead, he had a round swelling, about the size of a plum. It was hard not to stare at it.
‘Come in. Come in. You must be Abby Waterman.’
He flicked open his pocket watch.
‘Right on time, my dear. I’m Geoffrey Lawson, the organist at St Stephen’s.’
He rested his cigarette carefully on the edge of the piano lid and held out a stubby hand for me to shake. Continue reading Memorising piano music

Once upon a wartime

Evacuated to Devon 1941

In 1939 I was evacuated to Littleport (2 billets) in Cambridgeshire and then to Ely, and in 1942 to Dawlish in South Devon.

Excerpt  from my memoir Woman in a White Coat
Operation Pied Piper’, the plan for the evacuation of children from areas likely to be bombed, was in place long before WW2 was declared. People in safe areas with spare bedrooms were urged to take in evacuees. They would be paid 10/6d for the first child and 8/6d for subsequent children. Nearly a million children were evacuated on Friday September 1st 1939. Trains were taken over, and London railway stations were packed with children.
Parents had been given a list of clothing to pack. Girls needed 1 spare vest, 1 pair of knickers, 1 petticoat, 1 slip, 1 blouse, 1 cardigan, a coat or Mackintosh, nightwear, a comb, towel, soap, face-cloth, boots or shoes and plimsolls. We were also to take food for the train journey: sandwiches, packets of nuts and seedless raisins, dry biscuits, barley sugar, an apple and an orange.
I was seven, nearly eight and my sister, Hannah, was thirteen. Hannah hadn’t yet started at her grammar school, so she came with me to my school. She carried the cardboard suitcase we shared. Our gas masks in their square brown boxes hung on a tape around our necks, and we had labels tied through our buttonholes with our name and evacuee number printed in large letters. Our teachers marched us to Liverpool Street station and onto the train to Littleport. Some mothers and a few fathers came to the school with their children. Hannah and I were alone.
‘I don’t need to go with you,’ my mother said. ‘You’re old enough to go on your own. I’ve put a stamped and addressed postcard in your case. Mind you send me your address as soon as you’re settled.’
No kiss goodbye. Nothing.

From the 9th Floor

Night Sky from the 9th Floor

Excerpt from my memoir Woman in a White Coat

The view from the ninth floor is stunning. It stretches from the London Eye in the East to the MI6 building in the West. In front of me is a cityscape of grey rooftops. Most of the buildings are still dark but a few lighted windows show that some people are already at work. The flags on the Houses of Parliament flap in the breeze and the long sharp leaves on our dwarf palm tree rustle. At this time of day the pods on the London Eye are still empty of people. In the far distance red warning lights on the tallest buildings and cranes look like a constellation of red stars. A lone airplane roars overhead on its way to Heathrow Airport and there is already a steady hum of traffic along Horseferry Road. Big Ben’s face is lit up. I hear it toll the hour.