I think that, in addition to the doctor and the midwife, a certain ethereal being by the name of Clio must have been in the room when I was born. Clio, in case you didn’t know, is the muse of history She’s been dancing around in my life since I was a child. History wasn’t just a subject at school, it was something I could feel around and inside me, a parallel world I could step into at will. One of the old folks on our street only had to say, “Of course, in my day ....” and I would be there, listening, ready to grab the outstretched hand for that walk down memory lane. Even then I thought of the past as something here and now, a web of threads braided in time, through today and into tomorrow.
There’s nothing like a big family event to bring yesterday crashing into today, and July 31st - as you know – was a significant one for us: my parents’ 60th anniversary. They were married in 1949, the year that Christian Dior launched the New Look, that NATO was established and the Federal Republic of Germany was officially founded. The Berlin Airlift ended, and Clement Atlee, the man who brought us The National Health Service (there’s a subject for next week ...) was Britain’s Prime Minister. Because wartime rationing didn’t end in Britain until the end of 1954, my mother’s friends and family saved their clothing coupons to buy the silk, satin and lace so that my Uncle Pete’s mother – a Swedish seamstress – could make the wedding gown. They pooled their food coupons for a wedding cake. When it began to rain as my mother was getting ready to go to the church, so my grandmother ran to the end of the street where the organ grinder had his patch, and made him come to play under her window. After the wedding, the party went on for two days and my parents had to take back the empty bottles – they were broke and needed the refund money.
I’d planned a two-day event for their celebration. The four of us – my brother also came over from California – would go up to London, stay in a gorgeous hotel just across from Buckingham Palace Mews. On the first day we’d have a late lunch, a bit of a rest for my Mum, then off to the theater to see The War Horse, the stunning production based upon Michael Morpurgo’s award-winning story of a horse in the Great War. If you want to know what it’s about, check out this link: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tpyD3ABIHI4 (I still can’t embed a video clip – it never works for me!). On the second day day we would board the steam-hauled Orient Express for a 5-course lunch on a journey lasting some four hours.
My parents were both born and bred in London – my Dad’s a true dyed-in-the-wool Cockney, a man born within the sound of the bells of the old church in Bow, east London, but it’s been decades since either parent set foot in central London. As we walked up towards Buckingham Palace, my Mum said, “You know, I haven’t been here since VJ Day.” And she told us how the area was packed with thousands upon thousands of people converging on the palace, streaming down the Mall from Trafalgar Square and all points around. “Where were you standing, Mum?” I asked, and she pointed to the Victoria Memorial in front of the palace. “Right up there.” There had been ear-splitting cheering and waving, and everyone suddenly knew everyone else, because war was over and she, like those other revelers, had seen enough death and destruction to last a lifetime. She was eighteen years of age.
In Covent Garden my dad couldn’t believe the changes. Now it’s a trendy area with restaurants, gastro-pubs, boutiques, artists and street performers – and it’s always packed, a true melting pot. The last time he’d come to Covent Garden, he was a boy, accompanying his father on a horse-drawn cart to stock up with fruit and veg for his rounds. My grandfather was a costermonger, a man who sold greengrocery from either a hand barrow or a cart, and depending upon how well he was doing, sometimes he had a horse, and sometimes he pushed the barrow along his route. As Dad was talking, it was almost as if I’d slipped into the sepia past, watching men running back and forth with baskets of produce balanced on their heads, the carts coming in with vegetables from farms across the land, and the costers waiting to take it out again. Clio was having a field day.
The play was a big hit with my family – which was a relief, because having organized this celebration, I was on tenterhooks in case anything fell flat. Mum was a tired and a bit unsteady on her pins as we left the theater, so I was glad to be able to hail a taxi straightaway. Though my brother had taken her arm, she tripped as she stepped into the car. “Oh, Mum – are you all right?” My brother almost screamed to see her stumble. “Don’t worry, love, I was falling in and out of London taxis throughout my teenage years and long before you were born.” She had the taxi driver in stitches.
The Orient Express – well, what can I say? From the time we stepped onto the platform to be welcomed by a brass band and actors and actresses dressed to the nines as if they’d fallen through a crack in the 1920’s, to the moment the loco touched the buffers at the end of the journey, everything was perfect. It wasn’t just the stepping back in time, but the telling of family stories that made it so special. Backwards and forwards, into the past and there goes the present, memories flashing past like stations along the way. And that train must have looked awesome on its journey, because many of the stations were packed with people who had come only to watch the Orient Express, steam hauled and really giving new technology a run for its money, as if the engine itself was saying, “You just watch me go up this hill!” At one point the train seemed to be flying along – eighty miles an hour, apparently. Hardly surprising, as the loco once pulled the famed Golden Arrow service.
We hadn’t been to London as a family since I was eleven, when our parents had taken us to the Science Museum. They had chivvied us along, held our hands and monitored where we walked and told us to mind the traffic. We were, after all, country kids used to narrow lanes and watchful drivers. Now those tables had turned, and my brother and I walked along ever-watchful, like shepherds with our own parents, who were now more likely to step into the road without looking, or trip on a crack in the pavement.
The celebrations ended on Sunday August 2nd, with a family gathering at my parents’ house, bringing together cousins, aunts and uncles not seen in years. I come from a large extended family – Mum was one of ten children, so I have 28 cousins on one side alone – and we were all so close at one point, even though we Winspears lived in the country, far from London. There was a lot of reminiscing, a lot of “Do You remember the time when?” and it seemed as if the ghosts of our younger selves walked among us. Photographs of children and grandchildren were passed around, and in our hearts we held those we’d lost.
As the breeze blew up and clouds came in casting shadows across the lawn, soon it was time to start saying goodbye. I hugged my cousin, Martine – we’d been partners in crime as teens, where one went the other followed, but of course we’d grown up and each made our own way in the world. “Keep in touch, Jack,” she said. “Remember, we go back a long way.”
Clio had woven her web across time for us, and in that is the stuff of story. Where would we writers be without it.
Have a lovely summer weekend.
(PS: I had some wonderful photos to add to my post today, but not only did I have trouble uploading them, but once inserted, I couldn't publish the post with them in - so had to take them out ... sorry! Also, this was published on Friday morning, not Thursday ... I think I'm going to have to talk to Our Patty, the blog maven and general all-round genius).