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[MY APOLOGIES TO MY NEIGHBOR PETER AND TO SISTER MARY SIXTH GRADE: my friend Peter informed me (correctly) that in my last post here, I used the word ‘orgasm’ twice in a paragraph. I’m so sorry. Sister Mary Sixth Grade would be appalled at this failure to adhere to one of her favorite maxims regarding multiple use of the same word. (To the best of my recollection, however, Sister Mary Sixth Grade did not provide us with any directions regarding multiple orgasms). Of course, Peter, if I followed all of Sister Mary Sixth Grade’s instructions, I would not have had my four children, career, or deep personal relationship with mojitos. Well, maybe the mojitos…]


In no particular order, here are four more things I’ve learned on my recent London trips.

1. London is a great place to be dead.

“IN LOVING MEMORY
AMELIA MARY STABB
[MILLIE]
FELL ASLEEP JULY 20 1903 IN HER 28TH YEAR” —Paddington Cemetery

During my visit, Grandchild #1 and I walked through some of London’s cemeteries. With a two-year-old’s odd sense of scale, she viewed the monuments as so many castles “like Let It Go!” (Frozen)

I was more interested in reading the inscriptions. Here are some of the things I learned:

Victorians didn’t die. They somewhat carelessly “went to sleep” and someone stuck a marble statue over them.

Little Arthur is ‘sleeping’ in Paddington Cemetery, next to Charles Goddard, age 6, who ‘fell asleep’ at the same time. There’s a tragic story of love and loss there, summed up on the memorial to “Charlie. Oh how we loved our darling and miss you. Daddy’s boy.”

  • Victorians were, however, really worried about someone mistaking their falling asleep for actually being dead. They were the poster generation for taphophobia, fear of being buried alive. 

    Of course, stories of being buried alive have a long history. One (probably apocryphal) claims that when the Scottish philosopher/monk Duns Scotus died in 1308, he was supposedly buried in the absence of his attendant—the only one who knew of his tendency to fall into a coma. When his tomb was reopened, he was found outside of his coffin, his hands torn and bloody. These stories—which reached their peak with tales of victims buried alive during the cholera epidemics of the 18th and 19th centuries—led to the invention of ‘safety coffins’ designed to allow communication if the ‘sleeping’ corpse returned to life only to find themselves buried alive. Solutions varied, but a common one was a bell hung above the grave, with a pull-chain passing into the coffin. You can still see bell hooks on monuments and tombstones today. There was a brisk breeze as we wandered through Brompton Cemetery, and I couldn’t help wondering how many coffins were dug up when the wind rang one of those bells. [For a look at Victorian patents for ingeniously disturbing safety coffin inventions, see Vox.] [Image credit: Christian Henry Eisenbrandt’s life preserving coffin]

  • Heroes were real, they lived, and they are remembered. There were so many poignant memorials to those fought for their country—in many ways.

    Memorial to Emmeline Pankhurst, the British political activist who founded the Women’s Social and Political Union, the most iconic of Britain’s suffrage organizations. She saw women over age 30 achieve limited right to vote in her lifetime, but died 14 June, 1928—just before the Representation of the People (Equal Franchise) Act of 1928 gave all women over the age of 21 the right to vote.

2. London is a great place to be in hot weather. NOT!

Generally speaking, England loves weather. It gives you something to discuss with total strangers, even if you aren’t in a pub, preferably with a dog. But even in hot weather, England does not love ice. It doesn’t tip automatically into a little bin in your freezer, it doesn’t come out its own little ice-fairy-sized door in your fridge, it doesn’t even come in the bottle of water the waiter brings to your table. If you are an American who orders a drink with ice, it will come with two severely curated ice chips unless you specify: “17 ice cubes please.” And you soon learn to add, “In a separate glass” so you can tell if they are spitting into it back in the kitchen.

So with London temperatures hovering around 87F/30C, my New York daughter begged me to tell her where we could find air-conditioning or at least some ice cubes on a Sunday, because sweltering London was this:

[Image credit: A Violent Forcing of the Frog by Hieronmus Bosch]

“Venice,” I told her. Little Venice, to be specific—the series of canals that wind along through London (and most of England for that matter), filled with gorgeously painted narrow boats, and navigated by everything from kayaks to water taxi. After strolling around the shaded water-cooled tow paths, we stopped for lunch on the Darcie and May Green narrow boats with their gorgeous pop-art design by ‘godfather’ of British pop art, Sir Peter Blake. (Their famous banana bread, berry, and mascarpone sandwich will make you weep.) But it was the tall glasses filled with ice that they brought to the table without us even requesting them that might mean I have to put them in my will.

Little Venice, London. [Image credit: Pixabay]

3. London is a great place to…wtf???

It was late afternoon and I was just getting off the overground next to Brompton Cemetery. And it was hot. The kind of hot where hot muggy streets are empty and it seems like you’re the only one in London.

And then London roared. Open windows echoed with the screaming. People poured out of doors and pubs, singing and dancing, waiving flags and beer. So, so much beer. Apparently, when England wins the quarter final match of the World Cup, there is one more thing you can talk to total strangers about. You can even hug them and dance. At least until the next match. Because in London, some things are just sacred.

4. And finally, London is a great place to find your next great summer read!

Check out my next couple reviews of (VERY different!) summer reads set in England. The first (below) is the quintessentially English love story of a family centered by a remarkable wife and mother.


Blurb

A Memoir Of Barbara Le Pard 2005 to 2010

 

When my father died in 2005, I assumed my mother would need more support and someone to help with decisions she previously shared with her husband. What I didn’t realise was the role she had in mind for me: a sort of Desmond 2.0. Over the five years until her death, I played the role of apprentice, learning more about her and her relationship with my father than I had gleaned in my previous 50 years. We laughed, we cried and, occasionally we disagreed, and throughout she manipulated me as, I learnt, she had my father. Neither of us minded much; we were both her so willing fools, for she was an extraordinary woman and we both knew we were in the presence of someone very special.

  • Book Title: Apprenticed to My Mother
  • Author: Geoff Le Pard
  • Genre: Humorous memoir
  • Publisher: Amazon Media, 2018
  • Length: 228 pages

Contact and Buy Links:

Blog: Tangental

Amazon (US) | Amazon (UK) | Goodreads


My Review: 5  stars out of 5

I have a confession. I raced through this book, stopping only to highlight the bits I like most, make a few comments, cry occasionally, and more often laugh out loud. I finished it and thought I’d be writing up the review instantly. After all, about two short chapters in, I already knew it met all my requirements for a five-star read:

Author goes straight to my auto-buy list, books I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend to anyone, books I would buy hard copies of and not lend out.

Instead, I kept trying to ‘figure it out’. This was a memoir, right? A biography of someone who wasn’t on TV, wasn’t quoted on the news, wasn’t famous outside of a few incredibly lucky households. Only…it wasn’t that at all. The more I thought about this little book, the more I realized what it really is—a love story.

Author Geoff Le Pard says: I have been writing creatively since 2006 when at a summer school with my family I wrote a short radio play. That led to a novel, some more courses, more novels, each better than the last until I took an MA at Sheffield Hallam. I published my first novel in 2014 – Dead Flies and Sherry Trifle. In 2015 a second followed – My Father and Other Liars. In 2016 I have an anthology of short stories out, Life, in a Grain of Sand. I have now added ‘memoir’ to my list of genres with the launch of Apprenticed To My Mother. Other novels can be found here. I write in a range of genres so there is something for everyone.
Before writing, I was a lawyer, ending up at the London Olympics. Now I mix writing with a range of activities, often walking to find inspiration or taking in a variety of sports events. I blog at Tangental – https://geofflepard.com/ and you can find more of my writing and poetry there.

In fact, it’s several love stories. First and foremost, there’s the lifelong love between Barbara and her husband Desmond. He wrote her beautiful and funny poems. She made a home full of love and baking and of course, a fabulous garden. On what he knew would be the last of her birthdays they would celebrate together, Desmond wrote:

Life is fleeting but love’s eternal
And we are proving it, you and I
For these are magical moments my love
And I try so hard not to cry.

Desmond finishes with a simple, “So thanks my love for a wonderful life. Now tomorrow, here we come!” (I cried.)

Then it’s another love story, that of a family. Barbara and Desmond raise their two sons with humor and gardening and disasters and the eccentricities that are the birthright of the English middle class, all offered with poems and lemon drizzle and so much love that her bemused family only slowly see the steel core. “…she broke the rules of the Grey Sisterhood which are: Rule 1: Whatever happens, don’t tell the children. Rule 2: There is no rule 2.” 

Her son Geoff may think his decades-long career as a solicitor will carry weight with his mother. If so, his mother soon corrects him.

‘Do you want my opinion?’

‘Yes.’

Will you listen to it?’

‘If it accords with my own, yes.’

‘And if not?’

‘I have spent nearly fifty-five years, apparently moderating my views to allow your father to think he was in charge of the big decisions and I’m not wasting time training you up only for you to let me down. I need reinforcement, not resistance.’

And finally, it’s one more love story, subtle but fascinating to an American outsider like me. Apprenticed to My Mother is a hilarious, loving, and not to be missed peek into life in middle class England, where “…the received wisdom locally was that a WI (Womens Institute) President was invested, on elevation, with a sagacity that would have made Aristotle pea-green with envy.”

If you like your memoirs to follow a calendar progression of events, Apprenticed to My Mother is not for you. It skips around, ignores what’s on the tin about only being the story of Barbara’s last five years, and reads like what it is—a collection of thoughts and anecdotes a family sitting around their table might share with each other, preferably over lemon drizzle cake and tea. But if you want a warm, hilarious, touching, and occasionally smelly* slice of a kind of English life I suspect is rapidly disappearing, I urge you to read this very special book.

*[Geoff’s reflections on the difference between maintenance for their slightly-illegal cesspit and a septic tank: “One generates a smell that English adjectives are inadequate to describe, the other is mildly unpleasant if you get too close.”]

Get this book. You’ll laugh and cry and really, really want a cup of tea, preferably with lemon drizzle cake.

Lemon Drizzle Cake. You know you want to. [image credit Daily Mail, with recipe from National Trust Book Of Afternoon Tea by Laura Mason, pub by National Trust 2018]

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